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The wonderful hobby of HAM Radio can be daunting and challenging but can be very rewarding. Every week I look at a different aspect of the hobby, how you might fit in and get the very best from the 1000 hobbies that Amateur Radio represents.

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Ladder Line is not Evil
Foundations of Amateur Radio The way we connect our antenna to our radio depends on a number of different factors. If you've come through the ranks recently, like I have, it's probable that you've only ever considered using COAXIAL cable. It's a single conductor, surrounded by some type of insulator, which in turn is surrounded by a conductive shield, which is protected by another layer. There are variations where the shield has multiple layers, including layers of foil and braid, so-called quad-shield COAX, and there are variants that have several cores, sometimes two sets of COAX connected side-by-side and so on. In many ways, COAX is an invention of convenience, which has several compromises as a result, loss over distance, termination issues, twisting and deformation and others. It's compact, less susceptible to external interference, it's relatively easy to route to its destination and if you treat it well, it's easy to carry around, but it's not the only way you can feed an antenna. You may have come across the term Ladder Line or Twin-lead, or Twin-feed line. You may also have heard horror stories associated with this "ancient" - well at least in Amateur Radio Terms - technology. Essentially, Ladder Line is two conductors, side-by-side, evenly separated by spacers. It's in use all over the place. If you look up at your power-lines in the street, or the high-voltage lines on top of towers, you'll notice that those are essentially Ladder Line. You've no doubt been told that you need to keep Ladder Line away from everything, in order for it to work, but that's not actually what's needed. What's required is that both conductors are exposed to the same fields. This means that if you're running the Ladder Line through a metal window, you need to ensure that both lines get the same amount of exposure to any nearby metal, you might put a slight twist in the Ladder Line, or you might put it in the middle between two bits of conductor, like a metal window frame. You might also have been told that Ladder Line radiates. It does, but only if the antenna you're feeding isn't balanced, because what actually happens is that the two sides of the antenna don't cancel each other out and the difference is radiated by the Ladder Line. It's worse if the Ladder Line is some resonant length on the frequencies on which you're using the antenna, because it will receive the signal from your antenna and re-radiate that too. It really means that you need to pay attention, but the cost of that attention pales into insignificance, if you think of the benefits. You might recall that your radio is most happy when it's transmitting into a 50 Ohm load. One of the measurements associated with that is an SWR reading of 1:1. This has come to be interpreted as: "You need a 50 Ohm antenna in order for it to radiate." and that's not actually true. All antennas will radiate, and as long as they are at least half a wave length long, their efficiency will be about 90%. The problem isn't the antenna, it's how you feed the antenna. As I said earlier, if you're a relatively new amateur like me, you might have put one and one together and decided that you need to feed it with 50 Ohm COAX and that your antenna needs to be 50 Ohm. If you do that, it will work, but it's not the only way. The reason you need to have a 50 Ohm feed-point to plug your COAX into, is because the COAX has a lot of loss if there is a feed-point mis-match. The higher the mis-match, the higher the loss. For example, using an 80m Dipole on 40m might mean an SWR of 65:1. This has about 80% loss on 100 feet of RG-8 COAX at 7 MHz. All you're doing is heating up COAX. However, if you were to feed it with 600 Ohm Ladder Line, the loss might only be around 3%. Before you start getting out the calculator to prove my maths wrong, this isn't about maths, it's about the difference between Ladder Line and COAX. COAX is wonderful as a tool, but Ladder Line should not be consigned to the annals...
Listen: podcast - audio/mp3

Organisation around your shack
Foundations of Amateur Radio The art of keeping your station organised and accessible has much to do with choosing wisely which bits to keep and which bits to throw. That's part of the story, but there are other aspects of organisation that will assist you. Rolling up coax is a skill that you need to learn. The over and under method of coiling cable is by far the easiest way to ensure that your coax stays healthy and happy without kinks and other distortions. Once you've coiled your coax, many amateurs use electrical tape to hold the coil in place for storage. This can be helpful, since it means that you'll always have a handy supply of electrical tape on hand for when the need arises, but an alternative is to use Velcro cable wraps which attach semi-permanently to one end of the coax and can be wrapped onto itself to make a loop around the coiled coax. Making a water-proof connection, for temporary use can be as simple as covering it in electrical tape. This isn't ideal and not permanent and water inside coax is a guaranteed way to create problems that go well beyond the one time that it got wet, with rust and rot destroying the connector, then the conductors and then ultimately your radio. A better solution is to use either self-amalgamating tape, or plumbing tape to cover the join, followed by electrical tape and even cable ties to ensure that the tape stays in place. There are self-amalgamating dispensers that allow you to coat a connector in a sticky goo that also keeps water out, but getting it off at a later stage is guaranteed to make your hands black and sticky. If you're operating portable, then getting your wire into the air might be associated with throwing something into a tree to pull your antenna up. A fishing rod is a very helpful tool, complete with some fishing weights, to get the wire into a tree. Bring spare sinkers because you're going to lose some along the way. Storing a cable or stay kit is often a laborious affair with the rope getting tied up in knots throughout your kit with the next 30 minutes spent untangling the almighty spider-web that magically appeared inside your go-kit. A great way to prevent such an adventure is to invest in different size zip-lock bags. You can label the bag appropriately and see inside what's there, so if you have a few of them, you only need to grab the one you need and use different sizes for different purposes. Too small means they pop open and too large means you can't find what you need. Bring along some ratchet straps. They don't need to be 20m monsters, 2m is just fine, but bring a few. You'll be surprised how often they come in handy to tie down a radio, or a squid-pole, or strap a clipboard to something. A clipboard is a useful surface to write on, to keep your logs and if you get a clipboard box, you can store your electronic log keeping device and some pens in the same place. At one point I actually attached the head of my radio to my clipboard with some screws which made operating and logging even easier. No doubt you've got some tips of your own, so feel free to drop me a line and share. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Listen: podcast - audio/mp3

A transistor radio curve-ball ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I have a confession to make. Looking back it's clear that once your brain goes down a certain path, it's easier to follow the path than to find an alternative one. When I was growing up, above my bed, bolted to the wall were two brackets. On top of those brackets, secured with double-sided tape was a radio-cassette player. If you're unfamiliar with what an audio cassette is, don't worry, this is about the radio side of things and is from the days when Digital Music was not in wide use like it is today. I used this radio to listen to local stations, both on the AM and FM broadcast band, and I managed to even get to the beginning of the FM broadcast band where the police radio happened to be at the time in the country I was living. As years went by, that radio-cassette player was replaced with a radio tuner, then a combined amplifier tuner and I re-programmed it as I moved around the globe with new local stations filling up the quick select button memories. Over the last year or so it occurred to me that my latest device had been sitting inside a box in the garage for the better part of a decade and that the gap was filled by the radio in my car. I would drive somewhere and turn on the radio and listen to something interesting, or something boring, depending on what the airwaves brought to my antenna at the time. I started wanting to listen to the end of interviews, or rock along to some other happy tune when I got home, but I found the transition to be painful. I experimented with streaming radio, spent hours looking for software and currently the best I can do on that front is to have an App on my phone that streams a local radio station. You're likely by now doing one of two things. We'll get to the second one in a moment. The first one is probably going to be along the lines of "Yeah, so, what exactly has this got to do with Amateur Radio again?" If you're not thinking that, you might be thinking something that only occurred to me last week. "Why don't you use your Amateur Radio and tune that to a local broadcast station?" Indeed, why not? I'd never considered that even though my Yaesu FT-857d can tune from 100 KHz through to 470 MHz, covering most of the Amateur Bands, I'd never considered that it would also allow me to listen to a local broadcast station. It's not that I haven't actually tuned to those stations, or listened to the local Air Traffic Control frequencies, or the local Non Directional Beacons when they still existed, it's that those activities were in the context of Amateur Radio, along the lines of propagation, or interesting signals, not background music, or listening to an interview or a talk-back station. I've not yet gone to the trouble of pre-programming those stations, since my Amateur Radio is sensitive enough to pick up stations that my car cannot hear, but the list of frequencies that I'm tuning to during the day, using AM and FM is growing. Shame I can't get FM stereo from my Yaesu radio, perhaps that's something I should play with at some point. So, my second point is, "Duh, my Amateur Radio is also a radio, that you can listen to other broadcast stations with." Of course, it's a pretty pricey transistor radio, or short-wave radio, if you think of it like that, but if you've got it sitting next to you right now, it's simpler than making streaming radio work. I started this with paths travelled and I'll finish with that. When something like this happens, stop for a moment, celebrate the insight, share it with others and who knows what other things will bubble up. When was the last time your brain surprised you and what do you listen to that's not Amateur Radio? Who knows, I might become a short-wave listener yet! I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Listen: podcast - audio/mp3

Tropospheric Ducting explained
Foundations of Amateur Radio You've always been taught that VHF communications are line of sight and that the height of your antenna determines how far your 2m communication might go. So if I tell you that last week I spoke with a station that was 300 kilometres away on the 2m band you might be forgiven in thinking that I had managed to climb up most of the side of Mount Everest to around 7 kilometres so I could make my line-of-sight communications 300 kilometres away. I'll give you a hint. I was at my home, my house isn't on the side of Mount Everest and we were both using normal gear, nothing crazy, no amplifiers, no glitzy antennas, just the basics. So what's going on? There'ss a phenomenon called "Tropospheric Ducting" that comes and goes and if conditions are right, allows you to extend your line-of-sight communications to distances far beyond your imagination. So, what is this thing and how does it work? First of all, this is something related to the lowest part of the atmosphere, called the troposphere. It has nothing to do with the ionosphere which we know and love and use regularly to make long distance communications on the HF bands. The ionosphere starts somewhere about 60km up, the troposphere stops at about 12km. Tropospheric Ducting happens much lower down. At the most around 3km up, but normally between 500m to 1500m. In essence a Tropospheric Duct is a layer of warm air trapped between two layers of colder air that acts as a tunnel for radio signals. These kinds of layers aren't caused by "weather" as such, but by climate conditions such as weather fronts. Normally as you go up into the atmosphere, the temperature drops. The rate is around 6 degrees Centigrade per kilometre. Without going into the fascinating science behind it, think about it as a phenomenon where you'll find different types of layers of air over the top of each other, each with their own density and temperature. When the conditions are just right, you get a tunnelling effect that allows you to make some very long distance communications. There's reports of signals travelling over 4000km and if conditions are right, you might be able to hear such long-distance signals on your house-hold FM radio. One aspect that you might not have considered is that the thickness of the sandwiched warm layer determines which frequencies can travel along this so-called tunnel. If the thickness is 15m, you can expect to hear 11 GHz signals, 90m thickness gives you 400 MHz propagation and 180m thickness gives your 140 MHz signals a path to travel. If you manage to find a layer that's 430m thick, you might even manage to make contact using 29 MHz using a Tropospheric Duct. Now, you might be forgiven in thinking that this is all voo-doo and unpredictable, but it turns out that there are plenty of things that you can use to observe that conditions might be right. If you have local fog, or smog trapped over your station, you might be able to take advantage of this phenomenon. It's not that the smog or fog is causing the duct, it's that they happen to occur at the same time as the ducts are created. If you see a sharp layer in the sky, then turn on your radio and have a gander. I won't guarantee success, and you can look online for William Hepburn's World Wide Tropospheric Ducting Forecast, but you really don't need that to get started. Tropospheric Ducting happens all over the planet and it might be happening right now. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Listen: podcast - audio/mp3

Storing your Amateur stuff ... everywhere.
Foundations of Amateur Radio There is so much stuff associated with Amateur Radio that your family might be forgiven in thinking that your hobby is all about being in the middle of a junk-yard surrounded by the carcasses of disassembled gear, components, failed projects, obsolete equipment and scraps of wire, solder and countless screws, resistors and other bits and pieces that are just too valuable to dispose of. During the week I was given an incentive to reorganise my work-shop. I set aside an hour to do it and unsurprisingly, armed with 20/20 hind-sight, it took a day to complete. The upshot of this activity is that I can now walk into my work-shop, something which I couldn't last week, and to top it off, I could actually find things. I confess that I've reorganised my work-shop several times over the years, but each time I find that it returns to its natural state of junk everywhere. I have noticed that this state is taking longer and longer to achieve, which means that I am improving things, but not quite as well as I would like. The biggest improvement I found last time around was to install shelving. I also used cardboard boxes to put stuff into, but that turned out to be a mixed blessing, tidy, but unusable, since I had to keep stacking and un-stacking boxes to see what was inside and writing on the outside only helped if the list of what was in the box was complete, which I'm sure you know, is never ever the case. This week I made an incremental change. I have purchased a whole slew of transparent plastic boxes, about the size of a shoe box each, with lid, stackable and big enough for most of the things I need to store. I've arranged the boxes along several shelves, stacked two high, so you only ever have to lift one box if you need to get to the bottom one. When ever I go into a bottom box, I move it to the top, so over time the most used boxes will be on top and the ones I don't use often will be on the bottom. Now I have a box with Velcro straps, one with cable ties, one with electrical tape, one with self-tapping screws, one with audio connectors and so-on. Time will tell if this helps. You might recall in the past that I've also got a stack of fishing boxes. Not a whole tackle box, just a single layer box with square compartments, removable dividers, just large enough for about 4 PL259 connectors in each. They're also transparent and stackable. Each compartment has some unique component. Red Anderson Power-Pole shells in one, Black in the next, Green, Purple, Yellow etc, each in their own little space. The connector innards are in another compartment, the joiners in another, BNC male connectors in another, and so-on. I've seen similar attempts at organisation using glass jam jars, but in my experience they don't stack well, are never uniform, unless you have 100 identical jars and are not compatible with concrete floors and gravity. I'm sure that I've missed some salient storage advice, so feel free to drop me a line and share your experiences. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Listen: podcast - audio/mp3

Amateur Radio Regulation and Enforcement in Australia is Broken
Foundations of Amateur Radio The other day a fellow Amateur was relating their experience in the hobby. They spoke of interference, jamming, breaking in over the top of contacts and generally being hounded by special people who think it's their purpose in life to make life miserable for others. I have spoken in the past about similar experiences that I had with individuals jamming a weekly net that I've been hosting for new and returning hams, and occasions when I've been on-air with a special callsign with an individual yelling "pirate" at the top of their lungs in an attempt to get me off a particular band, even though I was operating in compliance with the license conditions. I've personally made complaints to the regulator about these occurrences, who then decided that being interfered with for over a year was something that the repeater owner should complain about. When they complained, they were told that there was not enough evidence, or some such excuse, I forget exactly the details, but the problem was never investigated or regulated. I contacted the regulator to advise them of interference of our National Broadcaster on a particular frequency, on a particular stretch of road and their response was that it wasn't their problem to fix - even though the Australian Communications and Media Authority is specifically the spectrum regulator. One particularly funny, though not in a hi-hi kind of way was when I was speaking with an investigator who asked me how I knew about interference. I explained that I was a licensed Amateur. His response was: "I'm a Professional". I can still hear the capital "P", years later. Compare that to complaints being raised about my use of a club call-sign, or the publication of my podcast on-line, or the inclusion of an audio stinger in the local news I produce, or the inclusion of a flea-market segment in the same news, or a podcast I made about the use of an Iambic Key by Foundation Licensees. In each of those occasions either the regulator or the peak representative body of Amateur Radio in Australia, the Wireless Institute, or both, jumped in feet first, making pronouncements, issuing decrees or directives without ever actually contacting the person about whom the complaint was actually about. It seems that there must be a special hand-shake in order for your complaint to be taken seriously, that, or they're both running scared because I venture to make an opinion publicly. No, it can't be that, we have freedom of speech in this country - right? Anyone? I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Listen: podcast - audio/mp3

Which antenna should I get first?
Foundations of Amateur Radio The other day I was asked about what antenna should you get as your first one. This question is pretty simple, but the answer is likely much less so. You might recall that I've pointed out that we can prove you physically cannot build the ideal antenna, so by definition all antennas are compromises. You might also find yourself being bamboozled by claims about how an antenna is the perfect match across all or many frequencies. The same is true for a dummy load where the purpose is not to radiate at all. With that in mind and armed with a healthy dose of scepticism, you can now go hunting for the answer. On my journey through this minefield of mysticism I went from a self built wire vertical on a squid pole with a 16 radial ground plane and an electronic antenna coupler, through a set of purchased single band verticals, a wire dipole, a wire delta loop, a Buddi-pole, a magnetic loop, a multi-tap vertical, and many others along the way. Some of those antennas were bought, others were built, several were given to me and some have been loaned by fellow amateurs. I should mention that the antennas I named were all for HF frequencies. On VHF and UHF, 2 m and 70 cm, the list consists of four antennas, I started with a simple vertical and in my car I use that almost exclusively. I also have two larger verticals at home, depending on what I'm doing I'll swap between them but for the past year I've had a 10 m vertical which also happens to be resonant on 2 m, so I can swap between HF and 2 m without climbing on a ladder. Building an antenna can be very rewarding but also very frustrating. Similarly, buying an antenna is no guarantee for success. This means that every environment is different and many combinations of antenna and location are doomed before you start. Essentially you have to start a process to find what works for you and your environment, a fixed location, or a car, portable, mobile or something else, in my limited experience there really isn't a substitute for trial and error. That being said, getting your hands on a balun and some wire is a good place to start. If you're looking for something that takes up less space, a vertical is often another way to get going. Currently in my car I use a multi-tap vertical. At home I'm playing with a 10 m vertical and a magnetic loop. When I set up portable on my own I'll use my squid pole vertical and if I'm with others I'll help string up as much wire as we can. At my local radio club I'll use one of several Yagi antennas and if I'm at a friend's place I'll use whatever they have plugged into their radio. This confusing mismatch of antennas reflects about six years of experimentation and I've not even mentioned the pile of failures sitting in the corner of my shack. Two more comments. Getting or borrowing an antenna analyser is a good idea and the amount of money you spend on an antenna is no indication of success. That's not really an answer, but it's the best I have. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Listen: podcast - audio/mp3

Amateur Radio is about Experimenting and Trying!
Foundations of Amateur Radio The other day I was browsing through the Amateur Radio Syllabus for Foundation Licensees, as you do, you know, when you're bored out of your mind, or in my case, looking for a topic to talk about. So, I came across this interesting point, if you want to look it up, point 2.2 of the Foundation Syllabus. It states that in order to attain your Foundation License in Australia you must: "Recall that an Amateur Licence primarily authorises the operation of an Amateur station for self-training in radio communications, inter-communications between Amateurs and technical investigations into radio communications." You might hear that and think, ok, so what's your point? Simple really. As an Amateur Radio community we have come to collectively understand that in order for you to do anything in the realm of building or research, you need to hold more responsibility and that if you're on the so-called bottom rung of Amateur-dom, you really are only a button twiddler, appliance operator and not much of an Amateur at all. It's funny really, since the Amateurs I know and consider to be my friends and peers, exist across the wide spectrum, from being licensed last week, through last year, through last decade onto before I was born, more than half a century ago, these Amateurs have one thing in common - curiosity. They like to explore, to investigate, to understand, to learn and to try stuff. Many of these Amateurs have a Foundation License like I do and their skill in exploring has very little to do with their level of license and everything to do with their approach and attitude. I know that I can just go about my business and ignore the noisy minority who continue to be derisive towards lesser Amateurs, but I think it's important to highlight that my personal experience does not match their vocal opposition towards those who hold different opinions, find different things interesting, bring different approaches and attitudes or continue to be excited by this hobby. I know that I often point out this element of nay-sayers, but I'd like to also point out that while they make noise, a much larger group of Amateurs continues to play and explore. A couple of years ago, when the ink on my license wasn't even dry, I was dragged, almost kicking and screaming, to a national Amateur Conference by a fellow Amateur and good friend. I resisted, but his insistence saw me pack my bags and head over to meet a group of people who share this amazing thrill that I experience with Amateur Radio on a daily basis. I'm immensely grateful for my friend and his badgering, and want to point out that if you find yourself surrounded by those who continue to tell you that you need to upgrade, that what you're doing has been done and failed, that what you're playing with isn't interesting, that what you're doing is wrong. If you find yourself in that place, then I urge you to find new friends in Amateur Radio, because we're not all like that, in fact, I'm pretty sure, most of us are not like that. It's just that the know-it-alls are good at telling you so and the quiet achievers just get on with it. Find a friend, explore an idea, try something new, visit a new club, or go on an adventure. Amateur Radio is and should be fun and if it isn't you're looking in the wrong places. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Listen: podcast - audio/mp3

How does PSK or Phase Shift Keying actually work?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Previously I've explained how Radio-teletype or RTTY works from a technical perspective. If you recall, it uses a technique called Frequency Shift Keying, or FSK to encode digital information. It does this by transmitting a carrier across two alternating frequencies, allocating one as a SPACE and the other as a MARK, or as a binary 0 and a binary 1. There are several other ways of encoding information and today I'm going to look at Phase Shift Keying, or PSK, which I find humorous, because Phase is spelled with a P, but it sounds like an F, which links the FSK and PSK together, but then I've always had a strange sense of humour. Imagine if you will a sine wave. It's the one you learned in high-school, nothing sophisticated about it, just keeps going up and down over time. Now imagine another one. Also going up and down over time. If these two sine waves are synchronised, going up and down at the same time, the difference between them is 0. If one of the sine waves is going up, while the other is going down, then the difference between them is 1. That is enough to give you a binary 0 and a binary 1. One of the sine waves is a carrier, so it's transmitted continuously, and the other is changed depending on whether you're sending a 0 or a 1. These two sine waves are said to be "in-phase" when they're both going up and down at the same time, and "out of phase" when they're going in opposite directions. This is how Phase Shift Keying works. And the simple example I gave is known as BPSK, or Binary Phase-Shift Keying. There are countless variations on this. For example, you don't need to have them going in completely 180 degrees opposite directions, you could go only 90 degrees, or even 45 degrees, which would allow you to encode more information across a shorter time span at the cost of less accurate decoding at the other end. You could play with the carrier and instead have the signal be compared to itself, making it more robust in some circumstances, or you could have multiple of these signals happening at the same time. You could change the amplitude of the carrier and allocate specific byte values to each combination. For example, one variation, an encoding method called "16-QAM" allows you to create 16 different signals, which equates to sending 4 bits at a time. Each of these have different advantages and disadvantages, trade-offs between speed, reliability, error detection, impact of polarisation changes in the ionosphere, energy efficiency, etc. You might be surprised to learn that these techniques are not only used inside Amateur Radio and PSK31, they're also used in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ethernet, RFID and countless other places, like remote controls, hard-drives, tape recorders, satellite communications, mobile telephony, etc. If you get hooked, there's lots of maths that you can associate with all of this - if that floats your boat, but you don't need any maths to grasp how it works. Phase Shift Keying, one of the many Digital Modes that make our world go round. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Listen: podcast - audio/mp3

How does RTTY work?
Foundations of Amateur Radio The continued discussion in our community about Digital Modes got me thinking about what a Digital Mode actually is. At the most fundamental level, it's about encoding information into discrete chunks to exchange information. Morse Code is an example of a Digital Mode, made up from combinations of dits and dahs. If you change frequency whilst sending dits and dah's you invented RTTY or Radio-teletype. There are two frequencies involved, 170 Hz apart, where the lower frequency is the SPACE frequency and the upper frequency is the MARK frequency. If someone gives you a RTTY frequency, they're talking about the upper frequency. Instead of using Morse Code to send messages, RTTY uses 32 different codes, 5 bits, to exchange information. This isn't enough for the entire alphabet, with digits and punctuation, so two of the codes are used to swap between Letters and Numbers. Some radios can change frequency between the lower SPACE and upper MARK frequencies in a single transmission. This way of transmitting is called FSK, or Frequency Shift Keying. It's a lot like moving the VFO around whilst keying a Morse-key. Not something you'd do manually, since in Amateur Radio, this is generally happening 45 times a second. If your radio can't do the frequency shifting, then another way is to use Audio Frequency Shift Keying of AFSK, where instead of changing the frequency, you change an audio tone by 170 Hz. Without getting technical about how this works, if you've ever listened to Morse Code with a radio, you'll have noticed that as you change frequency, the sound changes. If you were to change the frequency of your radio by 170 Hz, the sound would also change by 170 Hz. So with that in mind, if you were to change the sound by 170 Hz, the receiver wouldn't care if you were changing the transmit frequency or the audio frequency, since it both sounds identical at the other end. Most of the time a computer is generating two tones, a tone for the SPACE, or lower frequency and a tone for the MARK or the upper frequency. It comes out of the speaker of the computer, which you feed into the microphone of the radio and your radio then generates a normal SSB signal that is experienced by the listener at the other end as a Radio-teletype. Pretty nifty and if you understand this, then most of the other Digital Modes in use today use similar methods. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Listen: podcast - audio/mp3

Qualifications for using a Digital Mode
Foundations of Amateur Radio Having a Digital Mode in your shack appears to be a special privilege, at least in some parts of the world. If you'd like to learn all there is to do with using a Digital Mode you need to pay attention and I'll share the secret, it won't take long. If you want to distinguish yourself as a Digital Mode Diva, you need to know that Morse, RTTY, FSK and PSK are digital modes and you must also remember that the bandwidth of a data transmission is dependent on speed and mode. At this point you've covered all the syllabus requirements for holding a Standard License in Australia in relation to operating a Digital Mode. If you want to climb the Mountain of Digital Mode Magic, you need to remember two acronyms, FEC or Forward Error Correction and ARQ or Automatic Repeat Request. You also need to remember four numbers, 31 Hz for PSK31, 250 Hz for RTTY, 730 Hz for Packet Radio and 300 Hz for FSK. And if you want to get really fancy, I should point out that there are several versions of each of these modes and different ways to implement them, so those numbers will change depending on who's teaching you. If I go on to tell you that a Terminal Node Controller or TNC is a black box with two audio leads, one for the microphone and one for the speaker and that you plug those into the appropriate sockets on your radio, you know all that is required to hold an Advanced Certificate in Australia for using a Digital Mode. If you don't want to blow up your radio, then you should also remember that there is a thing called Duty Cycle that will come to haunt you if you get it wrong. That's it, now you know everything there is to know about using Digital Modes. Actually, I'm lying. When you say the letter A on air you use the word Alpha. You're sending extra information so the other end has a better chance of understanding what you said. That's Forward Error Correction. And when you say the same thing repeatedly, like saying CQ, CQ, CQ, if you don't get an acknowledgement from the other end, that's Automatic Repeat Request. Now you really do know all there is to know about Digital Modes according to the syllabus for both Standard and Advanced Licenses in Australia. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Mechanical Filters
Foundations of Amateur Radio The other day a whole new world opened up to me when I came across the idea that Voltage is the same as Force and Current is the same as Velocity. It all came about when I installed two mechanical filters into my radio. You heard that right, in my shiny solid-state radio, I added moving parts! The purpose of this was to improve the way the radio ignores unwanted signals and as a result has an easier time hearing what it is you really care about. The radio already has filters built-in, but mechanical filters offer a cleaner output with less distortion across a wider range of temperatures. Another way is to say that - mechanical filters have a much higher Q. Think of a pendulum swinging through oil, it's losing lots of energy for every swing and has a low Q. The same pendulum swinging through air retains most of its energy and has a high Q. The same is true for mechanical filters, less energy loss, better reproduction, better outcome for the things you want to keep and hear. So how does this then work? Turns out that our electrical theory with inductors, capacitors and resistors have mechanical equivalents, specifically mass, stiffness and damping. As I said when I started, Voltage is Force and Current is Velocity. It turns out that all the maths we use to design electrical filters can also be used to design mechanical filters and 1946 Robert Adler from Zenith did exactly that. This worked so well that in 1952 the Collins Radio Company started manufacturing them and today we still use them in many different radios. As an aside, you might be surprised to learn that the first filter that Robert Adler invented in 1946 was for a 455 kHz filter, which I could technically still use in my radio today, since the same Intermediate Frequency or IF is used. The mechanical filter - vibrating bits of metal - resonate with specific frequencies, much like a tuning fork does, but your radio deals with electrons, not movement, so the electrical signal is first converted into movement by a piezoelectric transducer, a piece of material that distorts when you apply an electrical field and when you use it in reverse, distortion creates an electrical field. So, you have a box with a wire at one end and a wire at the other and in between are two transducers and a bunch of mechanical resonators, much like a string of pearls on a necklace. I mentioned earlier that mechanical filters have a much higher Q. An electrical Q might range between 100 and 500, the mechanical Q in 1946 using steel was several thousand and in today's filters using Nickel-Iron alloys, a Q of 10,000 to 25,000 can be achieved. Without going into the maths, what is this Q really describing, other than the pendulum in oil and mechanical losses? One way to explain Q is to say that it describes the "goodness" of a resonant circuit, the higher the Q, the better the circuit. In our case, "goodness" means that it resonates better where we want it to and not where we don't want it to. Before you start wondering, why the letter "Q"? Turns out all the others were taken when K.S. Johnson was looking for a letter to describe the attributes of coils in 1920. Today we think of "Q" as Quality, but that's the cart before the horse. Anyway, back to Amateur Radio. If you look at a theoretical filter, you'll see a lovely curve that lets through the bits you care about and ignores the bits you don't like, but when you then start looking at the real world where damping and resistance come into play, you'll soon learn that there are all manner of ugly spikes on this lovely curve. A typical tuned electrical circuit will have artefacts, or distortions along the way, dipping down, instead of staying straight, or having an ugly peak when it should be smooth. This in turn results in something that you can hear, distorted audio where low frequencies are under or over represented and strange distortions occurring along the audio range. It also means that adjacent...
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Contesting Protests
Foundations of Amateur Radio For the most part of my Amateur Radio life I've been an active contester. I have spoken about why I love contesting and why I think it's an important aspect of this amazing hobby. Today I want to talk about how contests are run, specifically how complaints are handled and how we could improve. I must at this time acknowledge that organisers are volunteers, just like many other Amateurs, giving of their free time, in this case, to manage and score a contest. Like much volunteering it's an invisible, sometimes thank-less and unenviable task, often akin to herding cats. To set the scene, a contest is an organised activity run by one or more people or groups that has a published set of rules, a set of aims and objectives as well as the mechanics of things like on-air conduct, point scoring, etc. A contester who decides to participate in a contest is expected to read the rules, abide by them and conduct themselves in an appropriate manner, that is, keep accurate logs, follow the log submission rules, etc. What happens after the logs have been submitted to the organiser is rarely spoken about. There is an assumption that the results are published, that complaints are handled fairly and in a timely fashion and that the outcomes are fair for all participants. In my experience, it's understood that if the rules don't specifically exclude a particular event, like say, using a Satellite contact during a VHF contest, those are fair game. Of course the response to such a thing is to update the rules to exclude that interpretation for the next contest. So, there are rules for the contesters, but are there rules for the organisers? What happens if they don't do their part? What process exists then? What if the results take over a year to be published, or you witnessed cheating, or you submit a log that has a score that differs from the results? If you bring that to the attention of the organisers, what is a reasonable response and how would you expect the issue to be resolved? In the past, any suggestion that there could be a place for a standard set of rules for organisers has been, in my experience, ignored or ridiculed with the notion that "We're all Amateurs here, stop taking things so seriously." In my opinion, that's not a reasonable response and it makes for uncomfortable interactions between contesters and organisers who are attempting to resolve a dispute in a civil way. In sailing, where the participants are amateurs, as in non-professional sailors, contesting is alive and well. Most weekends see a sailing race on a local water and protests are common. A standardised set of rules exist to handle disputes in a formal manner and raising a protest flag is the beginning of a set of steps that ends up with a ruling. In the case of contests in the Amateur Radio field, no such thing happens. As an example, I have personally raised a protest with a contesting organiser and have spent the past months attempting to get the results updated to reflect my actual score. I'm patient and persistent, I document every step, but ultimately I'm at the mercy of the organiser. Their decision to handle my protest is entirely arbitrary. In my opinion, this is not how contesting should work. It should be a fair contest between stations to apply the rules and come to a score. I've purposefully not named the contest or the organisers, since this is not specific to my protest. This is an issue that affects contests in Amateur Radio everywhere. What about looking at the sailing community and learning about their protest procedures? Are there contests that you participate in that have a formal complaints process and how well does it actually work? Have you ever had a contest protest that needed adjudicating and how did it work out? I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Our Amateur License System is Obsolete
Foundations of Amateur Radio Recently I made a point of coming up with three different names for License Classes in Australia. I proposed Low Power, Medium Power and High Power and then went on to suggest that this could also be a mechanism to update the framework that is Amateur Licensing in Australia. As it turns out, I'm told that this idea is mostly already active in the United Kingdom. My idea started as a response to an increasing clamour for more privileges for Foundation Licenses. These calls include demands for digital modes and more power. I understand this demand, though I don't particularly share it. I think that licenses evolve and the world in which they operate changes and that digital modes are an example of that. I have a much bigger problem with the way that licensees are using their level of license to look down on those who have "only" achieved their Foundation or Standard call. I have personally been told that I should get rid of my silly license and upgrade and it's unusual to meet a new Amateur who doesn't straight off the bat ask me why I haven't upgraded yet. I've seen the same behaviour toward Standard licensees and I think it's a fundamentally wrong attitude and approach to have. In my opinion this is a hobby for participants to do what they want to do within the constraints that they have. For some that means getting a higher level of responsibility, for others it means spending time doing deep learning and investigating the boundaries of their achievement. The notion that there are different levels of license is completely arbitrary and the idea that some are better than others is ludicrous in my opinion. Just because I have a Foundation License, doesn't mean that I am ignorant and just because others have an Advanced License, doesn't make them all-knowing or expert. If that wasn't enough, the boundaries between license classes are completely subjective, drawn from historic demarcations between VHF and HF, between Build and Buy and between Morse-Code and Not. These lines are getting so silly that they have become meaningless, to the point of absurdity. If I as a Foundation License holder can go to a shop and buy a Software Defined Radio, then update the software on that radio by using my skills as a programmer, I have fundamentally changed the way the radio operates, even-though I didn't once touch a soldering iron, or open the case. Our regulations have nothing to say on the subject, nor is there any sane way to police such an activity and nor should there be - this is an experimental hobby after-all. If I buy a radio in kit form and get it shipped to me, put it all together and turn it on, did I build something, or buy a commercially available radio? Where's the line between building and buying commercially available and what at the end of the day does it really matter? What is so special about the 20m band that prevents me as a mere Foundation Licensee to access that band and what is so amazing about digital modes that make it that I'm not allowed to use it, even though all digital modes are really just analogue audio and there is no certification, training or assessment related to digital modes for any class of license? My point is that the current licensing system is in my opinion obsolete, it's broken and the persistent baying from the sidelines by Amateurs who think that I'm demanding more privileges is getting tiresome. It's ludicrous to think that we should remain back in the 1970's, when Novice Licenses were introduced, perhaps while we're at it, should we go back to a spark-gap transmitter too? The idea that your enjoyment in the hobby is affected by my privileges is absurd to the level of being offensive and if you're threatened by my participation in the hobby, it seems to me that I must be making valid points. I don't want more privileges. I'm happy with what I have. What I want to do is make this hobby better, make it relevant, make it useful, make it accessible and...
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Quick Fixes and Maintenance
Foundations of Amateur Radio There is a time for everything. Mostly when it's most inconvenient, like in the middle of a rare contact, or while you're running a pile-up like you have never done before, or while you're getting a multiplier during a contest. For two years I've been using an antenna on my car that on occasion has the ability to remind you of it's presence. In this case, there is a lead, a so-called wander lead, that runs from the base of the antenna to one of the various connectors that are spaced along the length of the antenna. In case you're wondering, it's an Outbacker antenna and it's the first antenna that actually worked on my car. This lead has two banana-plugs on it, and those are connected to the lead with little screws which have an uncanny ability to come loose when you least desire it. This ability of an item connected to your radio to make itself known to you is not limited to my wander-lead. I've seen the same behaviour on microphone connectors, interface adapters, baluns, speaker leads, power leads and the like. Often you cobble together a quick fix and off you go again, doing what you were doing. Only the quick fix turns into "the fix" and nothing is ever actually fixed. I've been to many shacks where a quick fix has been applied that lasted days, weeks, months, sometimes even years, but at some point it will fail again, perhaps with disastrous results, like letting the magic black smoke out of your radio - and if you're not sure what I'm talking about, ask a friend, but the smell is memorable and often there is a matching invoice to pay. During the week I did something novel. I remembered the last quick fix I did and instead of thinking: "I should do something about that", I actually went to my car, got out the antenna, pulled off the wander lead and actually fixed it, that is, got out a proper screw driver and actually tightened the screws. Mind you, as I'm thinking about it now, I have started to think about if I should solder the lead and remove the screws from the whole thing. I'll let you know how I go. The point I'm making, badly perhaps, is that the hobby we are engaged in, Amateur Radio, is about more than making contacts and building stuff, it's also about doing maintenance and thinking about how to make your station safer, more reliable, more usable and fixing those niggling little things that will come and bite you at some point in the future. Before I go, I should anticipate some responses which will be along the lines of: "Well, it was a quick fix, but it lasted for years." - good for you, you're a better fixer than I am. For the rest of us, have a good look at your station and think about some quick fixes you've applied. I know I'd prefer to complete the QSO with that rare DX station, rather than have them vanish and later learn that their microphone packed up mid-contact. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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What's in a name?
Foundations of Amateur Radio For a long time I've struggled with the way we differentiate between the different license classes in Amateur Radio. In Australia, the three levels of license are Foundation, Standard and Advanced. In the United States, they're called the Technician, General and Extra. In the United Kingdom they're called Foundation, Intermediate and Full. These naming conventions convey that more and more is gained as you progress though the ranks, but they also convey that you are incomplete if you're not at the top of the food chain with an Advanced, Extra or Full license. This naming convention is not universal. The license classes in the Netherlands are called the N or Novice Class and F Class, but generally they're referred to as the N and F classes and in Germany they're called Class A and Class E. Of course if you're making a complaint about what something is called then coming up with a new name is one of the first things that you'll be asked and that has stopped me from even beginning to make this observation out loud, let alone spend some time talking about it. Today I have a response to the question: "Well, if you don't like what it's called, what would YOU call it?" Here's what I came up with, if we're staying with three license classes, the three names I'd adopt are Low Power, Medium Power and High Power. The names are chosen to distinguish the power levels associated with the license which then also allows for another radical idea. What if everyone had the exact same privileges and the only difference between the licenses was how much power you could use? This in turn would require a person who moves from one power level to the next to learn specific skills. For example, RF safety with Low Power is completely different from High Power. Antenna efficiency has a completely different impact on a high power radio, than it does on a low power radio. Interacting with high voltages doesn't happen with low power but you can bet your RF burn that it happens with high power. EMR, or Electro Magnetic Radiation issues were the single largest hindrance to introducing more than 400 Watts into Amateur Radio in Australia. What if getting a High Power License came with a built-in EMR module and that the energy was built-into the licence system? If all licenses were the same, except for the power output, it would mean that all Amateurs could experiment with new modes and invent new things and the only hindrance to such experimentation would be the imagination of the person using the radio. We have artificial boundaries between the various classes of license which bear no relation to reality. In my opinion the boundaries hinder the progress of an amateur and external factors such as the changing of the solar cycle impact different license classes in different ways depending on when they got their license. Skills that are gained could be gathered as points or modules and could incrementally allow the progression to higher power. Of course, 100 Watts on 160m does not have the same impact from an EMR perspective as 100 Watts on 10 GHz, but I'm not advocating that the Low Power license is limited to 10 Watts across all bands, nor am I saying that a Medium Power License should have 100 Watts on every band. But there's no reason that the power level cannot be proportional to the amount of energy involved, rather than a fixed power output at the transmitter. For my money, lets ditch this Foundation, Standard and Advanced system and move to Low Power, Medium Power and High Power. Who's with me? I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Mobile experiments with high power.
Foundations of Amateur Radio A little while ago I had the chance to use a mobile radio with high power. I used it to learn about the coverage of our local repeater, but also to hear what the effects were when two local radios were both using the same repeater and high power at the same time. I made all manner of observations and wondered how much of what I observed was real and how much was a case of me adding two and two together and coming up with five. Immediately after I made those observations I received emails from around the globe explaining in great detail what was going on. Suffice to say that there was some disagreement among the emails, but overall they lead to a few new things that I'd not considered. One comment was that the two radios, not quite side-by-side, but in two cars nearby was similar to the operating environment of a repeater, that is a receiver and a transmitter sitting in close proximity. Initially I didn't cotton on to the analogy and it took several readings to understand, but the outcome is that, as I suspected, the receiver is being overloaded by a local transmitter which is putting out a big signal that is overwhelming the electronics in the receiver, something that a repeater deals with every time you key it up. The short version of this is called de-sensing. I'm still reading about how it exactly works on the inside, something for another day. In a repeater the issue is dealt with by filtering the outgoing signal and filtering the incoming signal, making sure that only the desired information makes it to where it needs to go. Two random radios bolted to two cars don't have any such filtering and no way to reject the unwanted signals. Adding filters to both cars might fix the issue, but then we weren't trying to fix anything, just to learn what was going on. Another thing I learnt was that FM receivers don't need an AGC, since the volume of a signal is related to how much it deviates from the central signal, not how much signal there is, which is why the microphone gain setting on your radio determines the volume, not the level of power. To be clear, enough of your signal needs to get to the other end for it to work, but after that, you're just wasting electrons. If you need a visual for that in FM the height of the signal doesn't matter once it's high enough, the wobble determines how much volume there is. In AM, there is no wobble, the height determines the volume. Incidentally, if not enough of your signal gets to the other end, then your weak signal might be overtaken by another signal and the so-called "FM capture effect" happens, where the low signal gets effectively rejected in favour of the higher one. Interestingly Amateur Radios can have an FM AGC which can be used to determine the signal strength, which makes your S-meter behave more like it does on HF, but if you recall, an S-meter is really a guess-o-meter since every manufacturer has their own "standard" and two radios are unlikely to experience the same S-level for the same signal. Don't misunderstand, I'm not maligning the S-meter, just pointing out that your S-5 and my S-5 are unlikely to be the same. So, the more I peel away from my little mobile experiment, the more I unearth in the wake of the experiment. Such is the joy of Amateur Radio. Be curious, investigate and learn. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Magic and Curiosity in Amateur Radio
Foundations of Amateur Radio You know you've been at something for a while if you come across a topic that you want to dig into and discover that you already covered it in great detail a year ago. For me that topic was the "FM capture effect", which I covered in great detail a while back - the research says: "This happens, we know it happens, it happens under these circumstances, but precisely how, we're not sure." I finished off with a quote by Arthur C. Clarke who wrote in 1973: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." -- by that definition, Amateur Radio and the "FM capture effect" is clearly magic. For me Amateur Radio is about the constant quest of learning, the ongoing pursuit of explanation and understanding, the relentless curiosity that burns a hole in my mind waiting to get filled with information and knowledge about anything and everything. In that same environment I am the holder of the beginner's license in Amateur Radio and that is the cause for some members of our community to scoff at my skills, to demand that I upgrade, to ridicule the level of licence that I hold and to brandish their higher level certificate of proficiency as a weapon against my meagre understanding of this hobby. How is it possible that this irrational belief that one license is more valid than another can exist in a world where something as basic as the "FM capture effect" is not understood, not documented, not explained and not taught to those holding the summit of knowledge, the highest level of Amateur License? I've been a student all my life and truth be told, that's true for most people I meet. There are a few people who know everything already, but the rest of us are able to understand that learning is a continual process. The level of license you hold has nothing to do with your ability to learn, your ability to understand or your ability to be a higher class of human. A high level license is a privilege to incur a higher level of responsibility and acknowledgement that at some level you're able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Clearly for some it's the ultimate expression of their superiority, but for the rest of us it's a token that affords us extra access to radio spectrum and technologies. One reason I'm raising this is because if you're a new entrant to our hobby, you might be confronted by Amateurs who demand that you update your license at their insistence, rather than your interest, which can lead to you leaving our community which is a regrettable and undesirable outcome. Another reason I'm raising this is because there are many things in Amateur Radio like the "FM capture effect", phenomenon we know happen, but have little understanding about. These things have implications far beyond our hobby. For example, the mobile phone in your pocket, or the laptop on your knees or the wireless headphones on your head, all use technologies that are subject to the "FM capture effect" and understanding and research in our hobby can and will help the wider community. So, don't let your lowly license deter you from learning, from participating, from being curious and researching things that interest you. Who knows, one day you'll add to the body of knowledge that we call Amateur Radio and we'll all be better off. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Using an Alex-Loop, very satisfying ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio The quest for the perfect antenna is likely to be one of the things that you'll carry with you during your entire Amateur life. In the past I've explained how the perfect antenna cannot exist and that the amount of variation inside just one antenna is infinite, so there is lots to choose from. One of my friends loaned me an antenna called an Alex-Loop. It's a so-called Magnetic-Loop Antenna and while the physics of the antenna is fascinating, I'm not going to go into it today. Suffice to say that there are hundreds of articles on the subject on-line and if you do dive in, read at least 20 or so before you decide that you understand how it works or how to build one. Until I used the Alex-Loop, I'd been using antennas that are set-up for a single band, or ones that require switching between bands, or using long-wire antennas with an SGC antenna matching unit. I've also used so-called antenna tuners, a topic worthy of discussion some other time. When you use your radio to pick a frequency, so too do you pick an antenna setting with a magnetic loop. In this case, the user-interface is a knob that changes a variable capacitor to make the antenna match between 7 MHz and 30 MHz. As I said, I'm not going into the physics of this, but the outcome of turning the knob is that at one point for each frequency, the sound coming from the radio will peak. As you turn the knob on the radio, you also turn the knob on the antenna. The two go hand-in-hand and the experience is a pretty satisfying one. No need to switch bands, get out of your operating position, change the band on your antenna, or switch a coax switch to another antenna, or transmit to make the antenna matching unit do it's thing, or to peak the antenna tuner, nothing like that, just a simple turn of the dial will get you to where you need to go. The reason I'm discussing this is because it's the first antenna I've used, and I have played with hundreds of them, that is able to match the user experience of turning the dial on your radio with turning the dial on your antenna. So far, operating from my QTH, where the noise is an abysmal S9, I managed one contact, which I have to tell you was great. It wasn't earth shattering, not even that far or noteworthy, but as contacts go, it was very satisfying. Hopefully in the not too distant future I'll be able to find some time and go to a more RF quiet location and have some more fun. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Getting an elusive contact ... fly-fishing style.
Foundations of Amateur Radio There's a phrase that I use quite often, "Get on air and make some noise!" In terms of Amateur Radio that makes people think that I mean that they should turn on their radio, pick a band and call CQ, for hours. I can tell you now, if you're a QRP station, this is going to be a frustrating experience unless you're lucky or happen to be located in a place where other Amateurs want to talk to you, like an uninhabited island, or a low-tide reef, or some other place on the DXCC most wanted list. I liken operating a low power or QRP station to fly-fishing. To get a fish takes patience, skill and persistence. Would you start fishing in an industrial sewer in the hope that you catch something, or would you attempt to learn something about the fish that you're trying to catch, before seeking out its hiding place and throwing out a bait? Operating your Amateur Station should be more of the baiting and less of the industrial sewer. So what does this look like in your day-to-day operation of your station? Well, for starters you'll need to figure out where all the other Amateurs are. You can do that by listening for other stations, or by finding automatic beacons and seeing if you can hear them. That takes care of the first problem, is it at all possible to catch anything here? The next challenge you're faced with is when to find these stations. You'll need to do some reverse investigation. If you're trying to contact the other side of the globe, it's likely that the station you're looking for is going to be asleep when you're awake. So, calling a station during your lunch break is likely to mean that it's midnight over there. So, pick a time when they're likely to be awake, the beginning or the end of their day, which happily coincides with the grey-line, when the sun is just on the horizon, when radio propagation goes through some magical transformations. If you call on a Wednesday, it's likely that they're also in the middle of their work week, so think about how to plan for this. If it's a public holiday, check to see if they have one too, or plan for operating during the public holiday at the other end. If there is a large Amateur Radio contest at the other end, you might find that your station is desirable as a contact, or the opposite might be true, so check that out. Of course, I'm not able to cover all the variations of this and it will be specific to your station, so spend some time planning and learning about what a contact might look like. Now, if you take this advice to the extreme, you'll end up never getting on air and calling CQ, which means that you'll never get a serendipitous contact, nor will you capture the exception where an insomniac operator is trolling the bands to talk to someone, which would be a shame, so, do your homework, learn about when and where to operate and in the mean-time, get on air and make some noise! I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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What if the Radio Spectrum was a data souce?
Foundations of Amateur Radio The evolution of Amateur Radio is a constantly changing landscape. I've previously described the transition from spark-gap to surface-mount and the ongoing progression of inventiveness that brings this amazing hobby together with the leading edge of science and technology. If you think of software defined radio as a linear increment on the radio scale you'll end up where we see some of the manufacturers today are placing their bets. You'll find a radio that has knobs and buttons like a traditional radio, but behind the scenes there is a computer and a new way of accessing the radio spectrum. A little further along the scale is the proverbial black-box, often with a single button to power it on, a few connectors for antennas and a network connection to get information to a computer. The software on the computer often attempts to resemble a traditional radio with similar controls and the combination of the box and the computer with the software running makes for an Amateur station. If you have no rules for how the user must interact with the radio, you might come up with interactive waterfall charts that display the radio spectrum as a graph, showing frequency along the horizontal axis, time across the vertical axis and colour as a measure of signal strength. Each of these experiences are attempting to achieve the same purpose, making the radio spectrum available to the station operator. If you completely decouple the concept of radio from this and look at the spectrum as a source of data, then processing that data, often in real-time, becomes less constrained by the limits of our current perceptions of how a radio works and moves into the realm of data science. To give you a concrete example, if you've scanned a photo on your computer and are confronted by little dots of dust, there is software available to remove that dust and re-create the image in much the same way as the original might have been. The process is called noise reduction. That same process could also be used to process radio spectrum, or audio. There are many concepts that exist outside radio that can be used in this new world. You could do live analysis of the bands, determine which signal had the best chance of getting to the intended recipient, you could decode information spread across multiple bands, with bandwidth use that could be measured in gigahertz, rather than kilohertz. With the limits of your mind as the only barrier, what other inventions might be arriving at our doorsteps in the near future? I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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The evolution of our hobby is now ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio The hobby that we call Amateur Radio has been around for over a century. During that time we've seen it evolve from capacitors, inductors, through valves, then diodes and transistors, through to integrated circuits, chips and surface mount components. Along the way we collected a vast body of knowledge and experience which combine to make the hobby what it is today. You might have noticed that the progression of our hobby didn't stop with surface mount components, it's still evolving through software and the next frontiers are already tentatively being explored and offered for sale to curious amateurs. In my day job I'm a software engineer and I adopted Amateur Radio as my hobby of choice because it was technically diverse, had a rich history, a large community and had little to do with my day to day pursuits in computing and information technology. How wrong was I? This morning I started writing code to visualise audio, specifically in my case to make a video version of this weekly segment, but also to experiment with how we as humans use our senses to decipher information. As I was buried inside the decoding of audio it occurred to me that what I was doing was the equivalent of soldering together a circuit for the purposes of learning more about some aspect of my hobby. This in turn made me realise that as we dive deeper and deeper into the software defined radio universe, more and more of what we as individuals can do will be based on computers, algorithms and maths. On the face of it, this is an enormous shift in perspective, but I'd hazard that it's no different from moving between a spark-gap transmitter and an AM transmitter, or moving from AM to SSB, or the introduction of transistors. Each of those changes now look pretty small with hind-sight, but at the time that they occurred their impact must have been immense. I made contact with the software defined radio community a few weeks ago and in between my work I'm slowly beginning to explore this new universe that is beginning to unfold. Of course, as this evolution happens, while we're in the middle of the transition, as-in right now, there'll be discussion about the difference between digital and analogue, between hardware and software, about the benefits and pitfalls, no-doubt mirroring prior discussions that have been had across the past generations of amateurs. A new dawn has come and the future is here, come and join the fun. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Things you can learn from a new operating environment ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio The other day I had the fortune of using a club station with an Advanced License whilst mobile using more than my usual 5 Watts. I was driving in convoy away from the main local 2m repeater and was interested in finding out what the coverage might look like and how high power might make a difference. When I say high power, that's 50 Watts FM on 2m. I learnt several things during my journey. First of all, line of sight is still true, even with more power, but there is more margin for error. Little obstacles that would cause a 5 Watt signal to be absorbed before it got to the other end are all but invisible with full power. Don't get me wrong, a hill is a hill and a radio signal won't go through it, but trees, houses, and all the other little things we humans build on the planet each obstruct a little bit of signal. Higher power gives you more margin and less effect on the resulting audio. The next thing I learned is that two cars, travelling in convoy can overwhelm each other with power. The way you experience this, is that the other car starts talking, and all you hear is mush. As they drive away from you, at say a traffic light, their signal becomes clearer, to the point where it's back to normal. The way it sounds is almost as if the signal to noise ratio is being adjusted, more signal, less noise as the distance increases - a very strange sound to hear. As it was explained to me, the phenomenon relates to the receiver being overwhelmed by the very strong signal nearby. I'm guessing that the AGC, Automatic Gain Control is reducing the sensitivity of the receiver, to compensate for the strong transmission nearby, which in turn means that it is unable to hear the repeater which is relaying the same signal on the receive frequency. As the distance from the strong transmission increases, the AGC compensates, increasing the gain, thus making the receiver able to hear the repeater. There wasn't the opportunity to experiment too much, being in a moving vehicle, but I wonder if changing the AGC setting would have made a difference. I suspect that there is more going on than just the AGC, since the signal from the nearby transmitter, the one in the other car, is still exciting the receiver, even if the gain is being adjusted. I suspect, but don't know for sure, that theoretically, I would have been able to hear both signals, the outgoing one from the other car, even though it's 5 MHz off frequency and the incoming signal from the repeater. Likely there was a minuscule delay between the two, perhaps even to the point of suppressing each-other. Another question that comes to mind is a phenomenon called the "FM Capture Effect" as well as the so-called "near-far problem" and I'm wondering if this is another aspect of what I was hearing and if we had a local AM repeater, would it exhibit the same behaviour? Now, as you might have guessed, there is very little in the way of research in my comments here, but that wasn't the point of what I'm talking about. The point was that a slightly new operating environment introduced me to concepts I'd never considered, never even really knew about, other than in a theoretical sense and I was able to actually see, well, hear, this in real life. Given my track record with over 300 different episodes, you can take for granted that I'll be digging deeper into the experience to see what I can learn and to see if my initial observations bear any relationship to reality, or if I'm adding two and two together and coming up with five. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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What to say on-air?
Foundations of Amateur Radio There's a confession I'd like to share with you. Chatting on air is something I rarely do. When I'm working distant stations, so-called DX, my typical exchange is: AB0XYZ, you're 5 and 9. If the station has some questions to ask, I'll answer, but often times there is no conversation and I'll move on to the next one. Some of that can be explained by my initial training as an Amateur. I started working lots of stations in a contesting environment. I took to it as a duck to water and never looked back. No doubt I have lots to learn and I cannot guarantee that my callsign recollection is as good as I think it is, not to mention being able to detect an incorrect callsign, since I still have little knowledge in which callsign prefix, the first part, belongs to which country. Another explanation is that I'm often QRP and just very happy to be able to make the contact in the first place. I hear stations on-air having a great chat, a so-called rag-chew, but I never seem to find something interesting to say or relevant story to share with a stranger. Sure I can talk. As you might have gathered from listening to me here, I'm never short of something to say, or an opinion to venture, but being sociable is not one of my stronger traits, never has been. A few of our local Amateurs have a tendency to tell stories that go on for so-long that they time-out the local repeater, to the point where one repeater has been set to a 15 minute time-out just to cater for verbose exchanges. I immensely enjoy the stories, but often find myself wondering what I might contribute without sounding like I have tickets on myself. I recently was asked by a new Amateur what to talk about. Their daily commute is a 30 minute car ride to and from work and chatting on the repeater seems like a logical thing to do, but they asked me what to talk about. Stuffed if I know. Seriously though. The very first part of chatting is to actually turn on your radio. The next part is telling others that you're there. Then when they do, ask what they've been up to and before long there is a conversation under way. The funny thing about all this is that while I'm pretty quiet when it comes to being on the local repeater, I do host a weekly 'net for new and returning Amateurs and when asked I'm more than capable of standing my ground and venturing my opinion. Perhaps I just need to practice more and perhaps if you find yourself at a loose end on a topic of conversation, feel free to make fun of me or to raise a topic that's something I've talked about. Who knows, we might both learn something. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Amateur Radio Community Standards
Foundations of Amateur Radio The Amateurs Code, originally written in 1928 has been quoted for almost a century. A Radio Amateur is Considerate, Loyal, Progressive, Friendly, Balanced and Patriotic. There is something almost romantic about that, but in my short life as an Amateur I've been exposed to much that leaves that as just a sentiment, rather than a social code. I'm not alone in that. I have numerous emails from Amateurs around the planet who share their negative experiences, often being bullied by self-proclaimed experts with an axe to grind. Our 1928 Amateur Code brings with it a sense of decorum, etiquette, but other than some true Gentlemen I've had the pleasure to meet, there are aspects about our community that just don't translate into today, even if the Amateur Code could lead the way. Our community of Radio Amateurs represents an opportunity to engage with society, to attract new blood, to include new ideas and to lead the way in community engagement. As one path towards growth of our hobby we have started talking about STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths as one way to relate to a wider community. That's a great sentiment, but I think we need to do some housekeeping before we embark on that journey. Amateur Radio is steeped in tradition. We use quaint terms such as OM, Old Man to describe each-other, YL, Young Lady to describe women in general and XYL for wives of Amateurs. We have a thing called a "Gentleman's Agreement" and we generally refer to Amateurs as He and Him. By doing that we've essentially limited our audience to 50% of the global population. We alienate women before we even start to engage them and when we do have female participation we get Facebook posts full of sexual innuendo, or outright sexist comments, not to mention the girlie pictures spread around the globe, sniggeringly exchanged as contact QSL cards. On air we alienate women, make disparaging or sexual comments or express our amazement that a mere female could achieve a license. What are we, pubescent boys? Is that the best we can do? The irony is that we as a community rarely discuss politics or religion. It's just not the done thing. In general day-to-day exchanges we use inclusive language. In our workplace we are sensitive to people who are different and in our laws and rules we champion equal rights for all humans, be they men, women, gay, straight, yellow, black, purple or intersex. Why is our Amateur language not inclusive in a hobby that is based around communication, where Amateurs clamour to work a pile-up on a rare DX station in some war-torn part of the globe, where science and rational thought are expected and where an Amateur Code written in 1928 encourages us to be Considerate, Loyal, Progressive, Friendly, Balanced and Patriotic? I think we need to take a long hard look at ourselves before we start going into schools and sharing what our amazing hobby is about. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder
Foundations of Amateur Radio There is something magical about getting a new radio. I remember it well. Fondly even. I had done the research, consulted my bank account and picked my radio. It arrived in a courier delivery and I sat at the kitchen table, opening the box and marvelling at the parts that made up my first purchase as a radio amateur. I'd joined my local radio club a month earlier and proud as punch I took my shiny new box of joy to the club and showed it off to anyone who came near. I vividly remember one member's first comment: "Wow, that's an ugly radio!" I was heart broken, insulted, confused and didn't quite know what to do with that experience. My radio was beautiful, tiny, special. It was just what I wanted, it wasn't ugly and besides, it was mine. As irony would have it, several months later I saw their radio and thought that it wasn't something that I would like to bring home. Fast forward six years. The other week, I went to a local Ham-fest, it's a place, often a local hall with tables around the edges stacked full of an amazing array of stuff, where amateurs come together to meet and exchange their obsolete junk, uh, surplus equipment. It's not uncommon to arrive at a Ham-fest with one box and to leave with two. Among the tables and amateurs I was introduced to a new radio. I looked at it and in my head I thought: "Wow, that's an ugly radio!" - fortunately I managed to keep the thought to myself and instead asked the amateur who was showing it off about how it worked, how they liked it and what it cost. The amateur was excited to share their thoughts and I learned something from the exchange. When I got home I searched the 'net for some more information and found that this particular radio was more than it appeared and that my initial dislike of the visual translated into an interest that might yet see me as the owner of that radio. I know you're busting to ask which radio and which amateur, but I'm not here to advertise any particular radio, just to observe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that things can change once you know more. I wish I had those words to share with the first person who told me that I had an ugly radio, but I'm pleased that I have them now. So, beware, ugliness is an emotion, not always accurate and if you experience it, bite your tongue and learn something first. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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An Amateur Radio Code of Conduct
Foundations of Amateur Radio The Hobby of Amateur Radio is a curious mix of technology, rules and people. If you're new to this you're likely to find yourself being swept up in the scale of the experience and more than I think is appropriate you'll find yourself at the pointy end of a barb by another member of the community. It's taken me over six years to begin to understand what is going on that is causing this. Let me start by saying that there is no place for bullies in this society. Correcting a mistake is one thing, but causing interference, transmitting insults, abusing people on air, ignoring new-comers or using social media to vent is just not appropriate. Bullying aside, after looking at posts on social media for a while, it occurred to me that much of what lies at the root of this behaviour is a fundamental mismatch between how licensing is achieved today, compared to how it was achieved historically. I see regular references to the type of examination. For example, historically examinations were conducted using full written exams, where today we are likely to use multiple-choice methods and even those are being reviewed. It occurs to me that historically, the process of becoming a licensed radio amateur was a slow and steady process, infused with deep contact with an existing amateur, regular training, exposure to the community, on-the-job training, interspersed with study and then finally an examination. Today, the process is more likely to be a much quicker affair, with initial exposure to the hobby, a visit to the local training facility, either face-to-face, or on-line, followed by an examination. If we assume for a moment that both examinations are the same in terms of assessment, and I know that in and of itself is controversial, what else is different between these two processes? The answer is the deep contact while learning. In the United States this is referred to as Elmering, in Australia it's called Mentoring and it isn't the same as it used to be. Today there is mentoring going on, lots of it, but often that's after someone has actually received their credentials as a licensed operator. We assume that the examination prepares us for the hobby, but actually, the examination just prepares you for the law. That is, holding a certificate of proficiency means essentially that you are now legally aware that you can create interference and that you are liable if you do so. As I said, the deep contact during the learning process is different. That deep contact exposes a new amateur to the unwritten rules and customs that form part of the community of radio amateurs across the globe. For example, we use Lower Side Band or LSB below 10 MHz and Upper Side Band or USB above 10 MHz. There is no technical reason, just historical ones, that make that this must be so. There are many, many such un-written rules about amateur radio. Often they are referred to as the "Gentleman's Agreement" - and I'll leave aside for a moment the gender issues related to that notion. This so-called "Gentleman's Agreement", is not written down, it's passed on from amateur to amateur, or assumed to have been magically acquired by the process of osmosis. So, a newly minted Amateur, truth be told, I'm one of those, steps into the stream and gets swamped by rules that appear from no-where and instead of getting chapter and verse on how to learn, the amateur gets insulted and ostracised. It is clear to me today - more than it has ever been - that old hams die hard. They are responsible for their legacy and if they want to maintain the hobby in their image, they're required to be inclusive and assist new amateurs, rather than insult them and drive them away. I know that there are many wonderful amateurs in our community who do just that. However, the noisy ones just want the new amateurs to get off their lawn and go and play with something else, preferably not in their patch. I have no doubt that I'll get flurries of people who...
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What is SOTA?
Foundations of Amateur Radio One question I get asked regularly is: "What's the point of Amateur Radio?" Today I'm going to begin to answer this perennial question. As you know, this activity is a hobby, something you do for your personal enjoyment. People get pleasure from a vast range of undertakings and if you combine multiple such adventures into your life all the better. Amateur Radio is a hobby in and of itself, but it's also an enabling hobby. What I mean by that is it often can act as an excuse to do something else - under the guise of being Amateur Radio. For example, you can use an activity called SOTA to add some fun into your life. I've spoken in the past about SOTA, Summits On The Air. It's a way to enjoy being outdoors and climbing across the globe, as well as an excuse to participate from the comfort of your shack to encourage climbers and even as an unlicensed radio enthusiast, you can also participate. SOTA started in 2002 with the publication of the General Rules which outline all that the community expects and needs from you if you participate. In the intervening years the document has grown to 23 pages and I confess I was not looking forward to reading it all and truth be told, I've not yet digested the finer points, but I will before I next climb up a mountain. Don't get me wrong, it's not an onerous document, it's laid out well, describes precisely what's involved, how it's structured, who to ask questions of, what code of conduct is expected and what constitutes a valid SOTA activity. As I said, before I next climb up a mountain - more precisely, in SOTA terms - it's a prominence, something sticking out of the earth. Before you start gathering maps and looking at tall rocks, a prominence isn't just about how tall it is, but also how close other peaks, there's a whole definition of this idea, but the SOTA volunteers have done all the work, so you don't need to get technical to get on-air. There's rules about getting to a peak, about being there, about the environment, about how to use callsigns and the use of cars and other things, so before you get yourself into strife, like I did, read the rules. There's three kinds of participants, an Activator, someone who climbs up the mountain, gets wet, gets snowed in, gets hot and sticky, eaten by mosquitoes, breaks stuff and does all the hard work. The second type of participant is the person in the shack behind their radio, on the listen-out for new activations, making contacts, logging them and gathering points. The final group of participants is the Short Wave Listener or SWL, who logs contacts, showing both sides of the communication, both stations heard, etc. An awards system exists for all three participants. SOTA is a global activity. On the face of things it might seem daunting and my highlights of the notion that there are rules should not deter you from actually participating. The rules are to ensure that people don't get into trouble and die, to make sure that everyone has a good time and to deal with disputes as and when they arise. Many resources about Summits On The Air can be found online, but your starting point should be http://sota.org.uk where you'll find a welcoming and active community of enthusiasts who also like being on-air and making noise from weird and wonderful locations on top of big rocks. The point of Amateur Radio is to find something that you enjoy doing and making it a shared experience by incorporating your radio. A bit like Mark Twain said: "Golf is a good walk spoiled", SOTA is a mountain climb enhanced. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Adding a stroke to your callsign ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio To sign or not to sign, that is the question. Last week I spoke about operating with low power, or QRP which sparked a lively discussion which evolved into a conversation about adding bits to your callsign to indicate some extra information. For example, some stations will add stroke QRP to their callsign when they're operating low power when others don't. Other examples are adding stroke Portable or stroke Mobile. Let me start by saying that I'm not familiar with the rules in countries outside Australia, but I'd be surprised if they're much different, since callsigns follow a global standard, but check your local laws before you start getting on-air to make noise. In Australia the rules, the Radiocommunications Licence Conditions (Amateur Licence) Determination 2015, commonly referred to as the LCD has nothing to say about any such addition to a call sign. There is no mention of low power operation, mobile operation, marine operation or any such thing. The reference to portable operation discusses how long you're allowed to operate a portable station without notifying the regulator. So, from a legal perspective, there is no such thing as a stroke anything. So where does this addition of stroke QRP, or stroke Mobile or any other variation come from? The regulator maintains a website that has a page called "Amateur operating procedures" which "can help prospective amateur operators". It details types of transmissions, discusses code words like QRP and has one set of comments about adding something to a transmission when operating mobile or portable. It suggests that you can say something like: This is VK6FLAB operating portable on Wave Rock, and if you're operating outside your state, suggests that you might shorten that to VK6FLAB/5 when operating in South Australia or VK5. So, there is no such thing as stroke Portable, stroke Mobile, stroke QRP and the only suggestion from the regulator is that you indicate that you're mobile or portable and help by indicating your state if you're not operating within your home state. In the past few years I have signed with VK6FLAB/QRP but after realising that this causes much confusion in logging, I have stopped doing it. These days you might hear me say that I'm operating QRP during a CQ call, to help other stations a little, but I've often found that it's really not worth the extra breath. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Life's too short for QRP...
Foundations of Amateur Radio A phrase I hear regularly is "life's too short for QRP" and today I think that it's appropriate to start a conversation about that sentiment. When propagation is poor the high-power amplifiers get on air and use it to prove that you need power to get out and about. Far be it for me to deny another amateur the pleasure of working a thousand stations at the same time, a so-called pile-up. It's a thrill. I've done it during contests. It's fun. You call CQ and the biggest problem you're faced with is deciding on which station to pick. In the past I've mentioned that I've made a contact with Cuba, about 18,000 km away using 5 Watts. Over the weekend I managed just under a third of the distance, Perth to Tuvalu, 7,000 km with a wire and 5 Watts. You could take away from this that I like bragging about my contacts and it's true that I'm proud of having achieved those things, but that's not actually what I want to talk about. Amateur Radio is a lot like fishing. You can go out and throw a stick of dynamite into a pond and pull out all the fish, or you can stand up to your armpits with a reel in your hand casting a fly to catch a fish. Operating QRP is like fly-fishing. It takes practice, patience and perseverance. Of course it's not for everybody, but then neither is fly-fishing. If you hold an introductory Amateur Radio license like I do, the rules of engagement restrict how much power you're allowed to use. For some this restriction appears to inhibit their ability to enjoy the hobby. This podcast started life some six years ago precisely because a new entrant was expressing their need for more power. My contact over the weekend wasn't particularly earth shattering. It was made with a minimum of equipment, a wire antenna on a squid-pole strapped to a house, simple radio, running off a battery in preparation for a contest that was happening the next day. The thing to note is that it happened on 40m, using 5 Watts and the distance was twice the maximum distance within my own country. This means that any amateur who is starting out can achieve the same thing. It means that you might need to review your assumptions if you think of a 4,000km distance between stations as a hurdle that cannot be overcome. The take-away should be that while QRP is not for everyone, it's a perfectly valid way of enjoying the hobby and smelling the roses along the way. In case you're wondering, yes, I was wearing a grin from ear to ear after making my contact. Better still, I didn't have to kiss any fish. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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What is a resistor?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Last week I was casually asked "What is a resistor?" Now if you're into electronics like many radio amateurs, you'll instantly have a picture of a little blob with two wires with pretty colours painted on the outside, the size of a grain of rice and if you're not into electronics, you now know what a resistor looks like. Before I talk more about resistors, I'm going to talk about a stick. If you pick up a stick and poke something with it, some interesting stuff is actually happening. You move your hand at one end and the other end moves at the same time. Obvious right? It's a stick. On a molecular level something else is happening. The atoms under your hand inside the stick move back and forth with your hand as you move it. The atoms next to those atoms do the same thing. The atoms next to that, all the way to the end, also do the same. Now you likely have a picture in your mind of a solid stick. On a molecular level, this isn't solid at all. Instead of a solid stick, imagine having a row of ice-cubes with a little space in between each one being bumped by the previous ice-cube. The ice-cube closest to you moves with your hand, the one next to that gets bumped, all the way to the end. With ice-cubes there is a noticeable delay if the gaps are visible, but the delay gets smaller and smaller if the cubes are closer and closer together. In an electrical wire a similar thing is happening. You might have a picture in your mind of electrons travelling from one end of a battery, through a wire to the other end of a battery. Except that's not what is happening. While electrons do move, very slowly, it's called the drift velocity, think centimetres, or inches per hour, turning on a light is instant. It's instant because each atom affects the one next to it, which does the same to the one next to that and so-on. While not exact, this happens roughly at the speed of light. This is beginning to look a lot like a stick. Push at one end, something happens at the other end, almost immediately. Instead of ice-cubes, but in much the same way, we're actually moving an electrical charge from one end of a wire to the other. It takes energy to keep a charge moving along a wire. The amount of energy used is the resistance of that wire. Not all materials act in the same way. Some, like silver or copper, use little energy or have low resistance, while others like carbon, use more energy and have high resistance. You'll find resistors made in many different ways of various different materials. Each one is made for the specific purpose of using a defined amount of energy to pass along a charge. There are resistors made of carbon and of thin film of conductive material sometimes with laser cut paths to make them appear as a long maze of conductive material and of very thin wire, tightly wound together. This kind of wire resistor has a side-effect in that a tightly wound coil like that has some properties that we use in Amateur Radio, we often think of these kinds of devices as inductors. But that's another story for another day. As a side note, I started using coulombs, joules, volts, amperes and ohms to explain this, but I figured that it wasn't needed to understand how it actually works. If you have some time, look into it, the maths is fascinating and pretty straight forward. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Checking your On-Air signal...
Foundations of Amateur Radio The other day I managed to achieve a little personal milestone. I heard myself on-air. Before you get all misty-eyed, yes, I've heard myself on-air before - probably on thousands of occasions over the years, but that's not what this was. This was my own transmitter, in my shack, transmitting my voice via SSB and it being received and me hearing it. In broadcast radio this is a common thing. Every radio station I've ever been in pipes the audio from a normal radio receiver into the studio, so you can confirm that your transmission is in fact going to air as expected. There are funny stories associated with experts who decided that they didn't need to wear headphones and promptly broadcast silence because their microphone volume was turned down or not plugged in - gotta love the helpful announcer in the previous shift. So, what was so special about hearing myself this time? Well, for the first time I heard my SSB voice. Not AM, not FM, SSB. I'd tried this before using two radios and a dummy load, but that just ended up in distortion, not much fun. Let me tell you how I managed this and what I learned along the way. Online I found a local Software Defined Radio, or SDR, that had the ability to tune to a frequency that I am allowed to transmit on. That seems pretty straightforward, but in actual fact getting those three things, Online, Local and Frequency all together has proven to be a bit of a challenge. I started listening to the station to see how their signal compared to mine. I have a project sitting on my shelf to put together my own SDR, but that ran into some procurement issues, so I've been limited in my ability to experiment. I started out trying to listen to the local HF beacon, part of the Northern California DX Beacon network. Turns out that the SDR and I can hear that pretty equally. I did notice that there was about a five second delay between what I heard off-air and what the SDR sent to me across the Internet. I don't know if the delay is because the Internet signal travelled back and forth across the country a couple of times, or because this particular SDR has some delays. I tuned the SDR to 28.490 and my radio to 28.490 and after checking if the frequency was in-use started some test transmissions. Nothing was working. No noise, nada. It does help if you plug the right antenna into the radio. Tada, look Ma, it makes noise! I could hear myself. It became clear that there was a difference in what I was expecting to hear and what I actually heard. Playing with different modes didn't seem to make any real difference, so I was a little stumped. I recalled that during a contest I had been advised that I was off frequency, so I played with my Tuning Dial, known as the VFO, and adjusted my frequency to 28.489.50 and there I was, just like I expected. Five second delay and all. At that point I wondered if this meant that the SDR frequency was wrong, or mine, or both - how could I prove it? Some hunting around for suggestions revealed the idea of tuning the SDR to one of the time frequencies, on 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25 MHz, better known as WWV and WWH. On these frequencies a 24 hour a day transmission happens that encodes the time. You'll hear a ticking clock, voice indicating time and it has all manner of extra information encoded in the signal. It's used as a time standard but also as a frequency reference. Best results are when you use AM and you can use it to get a sense of propagation between you and Colorado in the United States. Mind you they are using a few extra Watts. Zooming right in I could see that the SDR was indicating that it was bang on frequency, so I'm about 50 Hz off, high as it happens. Which just means that I need to tune a little lower than the frequency I want to be on and I'm good to go. Only I'm not yet convinced. I came across settings on my radio, the TX Carrier Point for USB, menu 18 on my Yaesu FT-857d. Other than various wild guesses by others, I...
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If they're shooting at you - you know you're doing something right!
Foundations of Amateur Radio There's a quote from a television show that speaks greatly to me. "If they're shooting at you - you know you're doing something right!" I've been producing this weekly recording since May of 2011. It started life as "What use is an F-call?" and the first episode was recorded in response to an Amateur who bemoaned their transmitter power restrictions associated with their beginners license - when I used the same power to speak to a station 15,000km away the week before. I named the segment after the common term for my license - a Foundation License - in Australia known as an F-call. It's the so-called beginner's license, something you can get by spending a weekend with a book and passing a test that introduces you to the hobby of Amateur Radio. Since that first recording I've produced 296 different episodes, it was renamed to "Foundations of Amateur Radio" and I started putting the recording online as a podcast. In those episodes I've covered many different topics, from what to spend your money on, how to get started, what antenna's do and how you can build them, how different technologies work and what the Amateur Radio community is like. A recurring theme in my recordings is the attitude of other Amateurs to those who are starting in the hobby. I come back to it regularly because I keep getting emails from listeners who are subjected to varying levels of abuse by other Amateurs. I've taken to going to the Amateur Training College to explain that Amateurs are a mixed lot, many wonderful people and some rotten apples who make a lot of noise. I have had messages detailing abhorrent behaviour and read messages of those who left the hobby because of it. Fortunately the opposite is also true. I have messages from people who came back to this amazing adventure and got inspired by some of the things I've said and used this to rekindle their interest, or to finally go for their license, or to finally pluck up the courage and press the Push To Talk button on their radio and speak. We all make mistakes. I know I do. Sometimes I even find out that I made a mistake. For example, last week an Amateur told me that I'd claimed to have had 45 years of Computing Experience, which would make me a toddler when I started. Turns out he's right, I did claim that. Whoops. I meant to say 35 years, but wait for a bit and 45 years will be close enough. It's a shame that he didn't comment on the actual content of the segment, namely that we have a pre-conceived idea of what constitutes an Amateur, even though that is a changing thing. The episode is called "We should stop requiring electronics to be amateurs.", episode 28 of Foundations of Amateur Radio if you're interested. It's also a shame that he didn't point out a much larger error, in my episodes about chickens, but another Amateur, who sat on this for some time because he wasn't sure, caught up with me for lunch and we discussed in great detail what our common understanding was. We're still working out how exactly I explain what I said and how it differs from reality, suffice to say, I'm a curious kind-of-guy and I like to learn. That learning is also a regular topic of attack. It seems that some Amateurs who in the words of a wise-man - "who's only achievement in life was to pass their Amateur License" use my continued status as holder of a Foundation License as evidence that I'm clearly not able to pass my exam and ridicule my excuse of a License to claim that I want to talk to the world using 5 Watts before changing license. I've said it before and I'll say it again. This is your hobby. If you gain pleasure from getting a higher level of responsibility, then by all means do so. If you need something that your current license doesn't have, go for it. For me, my license does exactly what I want today, nothing more, nothing less. I have enough privileges to achieve what I want from this hobby today and my lowly license did not prevent me from spending...
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The spirit of our hobby ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Over the past six years or so I've single mindedly been producing a weekly segment about Amateur Radio. Over time this has evolved into a podcast which gets about half a million hits a year. Naturally I receive emails and I do my best to respond in a timely fashion. One of the other things I do is announce a new edition of the podcast on several different sites where listeners have the opportunity to share their views about what ever is on their mind. Sometimes their response is even about the podcast itself, though I confess that some comments appear to indicate that listening isn't part of a requirement to actually form an opinion about what it is that I have said that week. All that aside, I find it immensely fascinating that the responses I receive vary so much in perspective. It's not hard to understand and observe that our community comes from people along all walks of life. From nine-year olds to ninety-year olds and everything in between. I tend not to comment directly on such feedback, since everyone has their own opinion, but I came across one post recently that made me sad about the spirit of some Amateurs. In a seemingly bygone era there was a sense that Amateurs would help new people join the community and help them find their way into this vast range of discovery. A place where no question was wrong, where shared experiences are cherished and where the lack of knowledge was an opportunity for learning. It seems that the moniker that we carry, that of HAM, supposedly because when compared to Professional Telegraphers, we were considered HAM-fisted, went on to form the basis of a proud tradition of experimentation and renewal. Across the globe we see a refresh of the license conditions on a regular basis. We saw that here in Australia with the introduction of the so-called Z-call and K-call, looked down upon by Real Amateurs who had a much more stringent licensing regime. We discontinued Morse Code as a requirement for an Amateur License as part of a global treaty agreement in 2003. In Australia this meant that from the 1st of January 2004, Morse Code was no longer required if you wanted to obtain an Amateur License. As you know, that didn't signal the end of Morse, just that it wasn't legally required any more. I'm one of many Amateurs learning Morse because I want to, not because I have to. I'd also point out that it was discontinued by global agreement, not two random guys in Canberra. Back to my point about the spirit of this hobby. The point that was being made is that the Foundation Class license isn't a real license and that it is just being handed to anyone who asks, not like their requirements for Morse Code and a written exam, rather than a multiple-choice test. Essentially conveying that my undignified license and that of my fellow Foundation Licensees isn't to be confused with the noble one that a Real Amateur holds. This kind of response saddens me and frankly I hear it too often. It's as-if we as a community still have not learned that the world moves on. Technology, in many ways the basis of Amateur Radio, evolves. For example, in the current requirements for an Amateur License there is a long-winded discussion about the impacts of spurious transmissions on Analogue Television. In Australia, the last Analogue TV broadcast happened on the 4th of December 2013, that's years ago, but it's still required reading on the Amateur License Syllabus. Similarly we learn about Valves, but attempting to actually obtain such a device is nigh-on impossible. Should we still be learning about those aspects of Electronics, or should we move on? Amateurs are an inventive lot, we make up new modes, link up new technologies, experiment with all manner of stuff and sometimes we end up with something new, like IRLP, AllStar, SDR, Digital Modes and the like. All because someone got curious, couldn't help themselves and started to fiddle. As things fall off the radar at one end,...
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This hobby is dead ... NOT!
Foundations of Amateur Radio Recently I was told that Amateur Radio as a hobby is dead. This isn't news. It's often repeated and the story goes like this. The hobby is full of old dying men who when they finally shuffle off this mortal coil, or as we like to say "become a silent key", will take their hobby with them. There is anecdotal evidence to back this up. An organisation that tasked itself with the preservation of Morse Code in the tradition of Telegraphers and Seafarers is forecasting their demise due to the age of their membership. Other comments along these same lines talk about the futility of Amateur Radio in the face of other communication tools such as the Internet, Mobile Phones and the like. Emergency Services often ignore the Amateur Radio Service because they have all the communication infrastructure they need. People point at the declining numbers of Amateurs and say: "See, I told you, the numbers don't lie!" If you listen to this you might wonder why it is that you're fascinated by this endeavour and what it is that these tales of doom and gloom for the future of our hobby mean for you. Let's start with the numbers. In Australia in 2005 a new class of Amateur License was introduced. It's called the Foundation License and the purpose was to attract new people into the hobby of Amateur Radio. Looking at the numbers we see a year on year increase in the number of Foundation Calls. Many of those go on to gain extra responsibilities by getting a Standard or Advanced License. Some Amateurs let their Foundation Call lapse, so the increase of people entering is actually higher than a simple count of callsigns might suggest. So, we're getting more and more people into the hobby every year. But the overall numbers are declining. How can that be? Well, simple really. We don't have a problem with growth, we have a problem with retention. This means that as a community we're doing great things about getting new people into our wonderful hobby but doing a poor job at making them feel welcome and keep coming back. Those are numbers, but there are other things happening as well. The Internet today is a connection, actually an Inter-connection of networks. You might be surprised to learn that these networks started when we figured out how to use Morse Code on wires to send messages across the globe. While the original copper is probably not being used, though that in itself would be an interesting research project, the Internet today has its roots in the Morse Code driven Telegraphy network. The very first one of those was set up over 200 years ago in 1816. There is a long history of explaining the relationship between wire Telegraph and Radio Communication, featuring long cats, dogs and a war between Austria and Prussia. Suffice to say that Telegraphy and Radio Communications both form part of a symbiotic relationship. It still does today. The Wired Internet and the Wireless Internet are the same animal dressed up with fancy technology. Amateur Radio is the experimental arm of Radio Communications, so as long as humans want to communicate with each other we're here to stay. Time and again, Emergency Services need operators in the case of an actual emergency and historically they have been drawn from wherever experienced bodies could be rousted, suffice to say, the Amateur community keeps on giving. As for the old and dying men. Sure, we have some amazing history that senior members of the Amateur community have to contribute, with many lessons to be learned for the likes of young'ns like me, but I'm getting older every day and with me the rest of the population too. At some point we'll all be older and wiser, perhaps we'll even be Amateurs. Another way of looking at this is as the global population gets older with more free time on their hands, the more opportunities exist to introduce people into our hobby. As for the retention. As a community we really need to investigate what it is that makes people...
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Sun-Spots and Amateur Radio
Foundations of Amateur Radio Amateur Radio as a hobby is one of those activities that covers a wide range of pursuits. A fellow Amateur once referred to it at 1000 hobbies in one. I like that as a description, but it really doesn't cover how wide and extensive this hobby really is. You've heard me talk about radios and on-air activity, about contesting, about out door activities, about electronics and antennas, about the grey line and about decibels. Today I'm going to talk about the Sun. Using a hand-held radio you're often using higher frequencies, 2m, or 144 MHz or higher. These radio waves mostly travel along line-of-sight. If you look at the lower frequencies, called HF, 28 MHz, 21 MHz, or lower, then those radio waves also travel line-of-sight, but they also travel up into the ionosphere surrounding the earth. If you manage to hit the angle just right, then some of those will reflect off the ionosphere back to earth. It's a lot like skipping a stone on a pond. If you get it right, you might make it skip several bounces, if you get it wrong, it will go "plop" and vanish. The same is true for these frequencies. One of the things that makes the ionosphere reflective to radio waves of a certain frequency is the level of ionisation in this area around the globe. Typically the ionosphere is somewhere between 50km and 1000km above you right now. At different heights the ionosphere reacts differently and the Sun shining on it will alter the properties as the day unfolds. This is why when night turns into day and day turns into night, special things start happening along the border between day and night, the so-called grey line where it's not quite day and it's not quite night. One way of looking at this is that the ionosphere heats up during the day. Now heat is an interesting thing. The Sun shining on your skin is experienced as heat, but what's actually happening is that the radiation from the Sun is exciting the electrons on your skin and you experience that as heat. As a matter of interest, the Sun generates about 650 Watts per square meter in the middle of the day coming through the atmosphere. That's about 650 Joules of Energy per second per square meter. Lots of excitement. At the outside of the earth, there's about 1300 Watts per square meter. The difference, 650 Watts, is absorbed by the atmosphere. So, the equivalent of the heat you feel on your skin is also heating up the atmosphere. Now, this "heat" is really energy that's exciting electrons and thus also exciting the ionosphere. At the simplest level this is making the ionosphere more reflective to radio waves. I'm deliberately simplifying this because I don't want to get bogged down into how precisely, because my point is about the Sun and more specifically about Sun-spots. There I said it, Sun-spots. What are they and what do they have to do with anything? Well, a Sun-spot is a cool place on the Sun. When I say cool, it's about half as warm at a Sun-spot than the area around it, only 3000 degrees Celsius, instead of 6000 degrees. Sun-spots appear in pairs on opposite sides of the Sun and represent a point on the Sun where an intense magnetic field comes through the Sun. You can think of it as a huge race-track through the Sun that accelerates particles from the Sun into space. These particles represent energy and if they happen to hit the earth, they add a whole lot of extra energy to the ionosphere, making it much more reflective. The more Sun-spots, the more energy, the more excitement of the ionosphere, the more reflection, the better radio communications. Sun-spots generally appear in groups and the density of these groups varies over time. To get a uniform sense of how much energy there is around, scientists came up with a Sun-spot number. It's indicative of how much activity there is, not an actual count of the number of dots on the Sun, since some spots are large and others are relatively small. The increase and decrease of solar activity...
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What does MARS have to do with Amateur Radio?
Foundations of Amateur Radio In my travels along the highways and byways of the Internet I came across several references to MARS in relation to Amateur Radio. Being the curious soul that I am, my interest was sparked. I must warn you, today there is a lot to cover. First up before I tell you anything, let me start by pointing out that what I'm talking about has different levels of application depending on where you are on the planet. I also need to inform you that in some parts of the globe this is considered illegal, where in other parts of the same globe, it's perfectly fine. So, MARS, or MARS/CAP if you want to get more precise. What is it, how does it work and what do you need to know about it? MARS is an acronym for Military Auxiliary Radio System and CAP is an acronym for Civil Air Patrol. Given that we don't have such things in Australia, this phenomenon relates to the United States of America where MARS/CAP is used to coordinate search activities and relay messages on HF and VHF frequencies near Amateur Bands. As an interested party you can join up, do training and participate. That aside, the term MARS/CAP is more widely referred to as a way of modifying your radio to allow it to access to frequencies outside the Amateur Bands. Now at this point if you're a licensed Amateur your ears should have pricked up when you heard the words "modifying your radio" and "outside the Amateur Bands". This is as I already said, legal in some parts of the globe and not in other parts. So, a MARS/CAP modification extends the frequency coverage of your radio. Some modifications involve extending what frequencies you can receive, others extend the transmit frequencies. Often these changes are separate, but not always, so make yourself aware of what you're doing before you do anything. Now why am I telling you about something that some might consider shady or illegal? First of all, I've not actually told you what to do or how to do it. Second, if you're trawling through the Internet and you come across such a thing, how would you know what it means in your situation, other than a list of instructions shown on some random website? There are several different aspects to this. As I mentioned, the legal aspect which I'll discuss a little more later. There's also the technical, performance and warranty aspects to consider. Not to mention, emergencies and other exceptions. From a technical perspective, there are generally two types of MARS/CAP modifications. There are hardware ones where you pull out your soldering iron and modify the circuit on your radio by adding or removing something. There are also software modifications where updating the version of the software on your radio, or changing a flag, or setting a memory will make the modification. The hardware changes are generally pretty permanent, the software ones are often able to be reverted back to normal, but not always. While I'm warning you, some radios when opened up reset their memories, so you may need to reprogram all those channels when you put it back together again. Now, your Amateur Radio is a finely tuned animal. It's specifically configured to work within the specifications of the Amateur Bands and regulations and as you should know, there isn't a single piece of hardware that exists that isn't subject to the variation of its components. This means that if you compare two identical radios, the same batch, the same builder, they still are not identical. If you put them on a testing bench, you'll notice subtle differences. They'll be close, but not the same. Each one is specifically set with preferences, variable capacitors, inductors and resistors to respond just so, and meddling with the hardware or software can - and likely will - change this finely balanced piece of gear. If you're fiddling to fiddle, be aware that you might never get your radio back to the way it was before you changed it. If you let the magic black smoke out of your radio and return it...
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A nifty idea looking for a purpose in 1947 changes the world as we know it...
Foundations of Amateur Radio If you have the need to switch something on and off, a likely first candidate is to get a switch from the local hardware store. The principle is pretty straightforward. You put the switch into the power supply lead and by pushing it on, the two halves of the switch make contact with each other, completing a circuit, and the thing you're switching turns on. It's a lot like having two bits of bare wire that you can touch the ends together. What if you want to remove the human touch from the equation, that is, switch something without having to actually push a switch? A potential candidate for this is a relay. In essence it's exactly the same as a manual switch, except the pushing is done by an electromagnet. The way it works is that you send a current through a coil that is wound around a metal core which results in a magnetic force. This force is used to push or pull the switch open or closed. Now both a manual switch and a relay have moving parts. That means that there is a limit to how fast you can switch something on and off. You can probably push a manual switch several times a second, lets say 10. So the switching speed is called 10 Hz. A relay can likely get you switching around 100 times per second, or 100 Hz, but if you want to switch something at a much higher speed, say at 1000 Hz or more, some other form of switching comes into play. At its simplest, a transistor is like a relay without any moving parts. There's no actual switch, no coil, no electromagnet, none of that. Without going into the physics of how this all works, let's look at an analogy. Imagine a water-pipe with a valve on it. You can open or close the valve and water flows or not. In a transistor, the same principle applies. There are three legs, two of them act as the water pipe, the third one acts as the valve. You open or close the valve by putting a current onto the valve - or base - leg and a current flows between the other two, the collector leg and emitter leg. Now, so far I've just told you that you can open or close a transistor with a current, but it's actually more nifty than that. You don't need to have it all on or all off. In our water pipe you can set the valve to any setting and control how much water flows. In a transistor you can do the same by changing how much current you put onto the switching or base leg. You might have heard a description that says that a transistor is both a switch and an amplifier. If you haven't don't fret, I'll explain. Let's go back to water for a moment. Imagine a huge water pipe connected to a dam. Lots of water all pushing into our water pipe. The valve we have can be controlled by you blowing water through a straw into the valve. The more water you blow into the valve, the more water flows out of the dam through the pipe. If you blow hard into the straw, the result is a wide open valve and lots of water from the dam, if you blow softly, less water. In essence your little water flow from your straw is being amplified by the dam. A transistor works just like that. As I said, you don't have to use a transistor just to switch something completely on, or completely off. If you vary the current into the base, you can vary the amount of flow between the collector leg and emitter leg. The current you use to control the flow is tiny, so you can use a really weak signal to control the thing. In essence that's how a transistor radio works. The small signal that we use to control the flow is the tiny one coming from an antenna, the dam is the battery and the speaker is connected to the output. So, a small electrical current coming from the antenna controls the transistor which in turn controls the amount of current coming from the battery onto the speaker. A hearing aid also works in the same way. A small current coming from a microphone controls the transistor which in turn controls the amount of output from the battery to a speaker. The reason I mention transistor radios...
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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I look at an antenna and marvel at what it implies. A simple piece of conducting material made into some particular shape and size that harnesses the radio spectrum. I find it fascinating that this can and does exist and my fascination translates into a thing of beauty. I recall being on a camping trip and being introduced by a friend to an antenna that was strung between two trees in the middle of the bush. For some reason that escapes me we needed to lower the antenna and I got to have a look at the feed-point. Let me describe this to you. Picture a ceramic fence insulator. The two legs of the wire dipole are each fed through the insulator at a 90 degree offset, in just the same way as you would install it into an electric fence. Looped around this is a piece of RG213 coax which is soldered onto each leg of the dipole, shield to one side, centre to the other. No traditional balun, but there is a piece of wire wrapped around the coax, holding it all together and I have no doubt that it acts as some form of choke. This thing looks absolutely horrible. It's weathered, it's rough, it's nasty, has spider-webs and other little critters living in the insulator, the soldering is quick and dirty, the shield is roughly attached to one of the legs. If you've been in the Australian Bush and visited a farm there you'll know exactly how rough and ready this antenna is. I seem to recall that its proud owner (Hi Kim) put it up temporarily in a hurry to get on air one day, a decade or so ago. So, what of this ugly mess? It was the best antenna I've used in a long while. It allowed me to make my first QRP contact across the length of Australia into New Zealand. It allowed me to contact the 7130 DX net for the first time and we talked to a globe circumnavigating sailor on this antenna. So, as ugly as this thing is to look at, from an antenna perspective, it's the most beautiful thing I've seen in a while. Now, you need to know something. I saw this antenna nearly four years ago. I have photos of it. Every now and then I go back to those photos and marvel at it. In our hobby we have people from all different walks of life. It's been pointed out on more than one occasion that as a community, the single piece of glue we have is our Amateur License. Of course some of us have more in common than just that, but it would be smart to remember that every member of our community has a different view on aesthetics, a different perspective on what is good and what is bad. I recall coming into a new radio club, I had been an Amateur for less than a month, and bringing along my shiny new Yaesu FT-857d, I was so proud of my acquisition. It was everything I liked in a radio. I'd bought it with hard-earned cash and I was chuffed to show it off. One of the first comments I received was: "Well that's an ugly radio!". Suffice to say that I was unimpressed with that assertion. Their perspective was based on their love of the FT-897, which has a different shape, one that didn't particularly appeal to me. Since that experience I've attempted to subject myself to many different radios. It's become apparent to me that everyone has a different thing they like about their radio. For one it's the layout, for the other the filters, another likes the colour, the price, the number of buttons, the history, its power consumption, the brand, the whatever. Each to their own. I'm pretty sure that I'm also biased. I recall at least two instances where friends of mine purchased a radio that I would not have considered since they lacked a particular feature that I felt was essential. I'm not sure I was gracious in my assessment of their new purchase, but I hope to make amends. In some workplaces there are policies of tolerance in place. There is an assumption that people are going to be together in the same place for long stretches of time with different cultures, different outlooks, needs and...
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More strange antennas!
Foundations of Amateur Radio About ten minutes ago I was blissfully unaware of the existence of James K2MIJ. It's unclear if this bliss will ever be returned because it's obvious to me that James and I share several things, a sense of humour among them. Mind you, I've not yet actually spoken to James, other than me saying "Hello" right now, but his QRZ page is a thing of wonder. Last week I was talking about weird and wonderful antennas. As you know, Amateur Radios don't particularly care what you plug into the back, as long as it looks like a 50 Ohm load, the vast majority of transceivers will happily transmit into them. I've heard of people making contacts with dummy loads, bits of wet string, chairs and as I said last week, bridges and rail-road tracks. James has made it his mission to tune up strange things. He's made a lawn chair dipole and is using it to contact all states across the US, with only 5 Watts. He's added more countries to his DXCC than I have - 53 - and while he's at it, he also made some other contraptions, a fork dipole, from two actual kitchen forks, his in-the-shack dipole and his latest contraptions, a collection of five and a half inch and nine inch antennas. You heard that right, a five and a half inch antenna for 40 meters. If you go to James' QRZ page, you'll find a kitchen table, holding an antenna farm that rivals those of many stations. Antennas for 40, 30, 20 and 17 meters. One thing that piqued my curiosity is a photo of his 20m antenna sitting on the ground. Picture something like a peanut butter jar lid with a piece of copper stuck in the middle, standing up. It's wound around in a spiral with two windings, sort of like a big loading coil you'd find on a 2m vertical antenna. The base of the contraption has about 30 or so windings on it which you connect between the copper and the feed-line. The thing that got my interest was what was on the other side of the feed-line, a tape measure. More precisely, a steel tape measure. As I said, I've not yet spoken to James, but it might be that his mini-antenna is mostly made of tape measure. Don't get me wrong, I think experimentation is wonderful and he's clearly made more contacts that I have, but I'd love to learn what effect the tape measure has on his contraptions. I noticed a few other things that people have tuned up, beer cans, especially helpful with Fox Hunting, when one of your friends, or should I say Fiends, sets up a secret transmitter that you and several teams have to track down. The more devious the antenna installation, the better. There's the quintessential flag-pole antenna for those times that your neighbours need to see that you're patriotic and not a nasty radio amateur with unsightly antennas that reduce the value of their home and remove the enjoyment of their life because your hobby affects their ability to sleep at night. I've seen people tune up their gutters, even tried it myself - the noise floor in my shack prevents anything sensible, but I'm working on it - and of course there's the proverbial boat on a trailer antenna. No interest in sailing as such, just a nice tall aluminium construction that could perhaps be connected via some feed-line to a nearby radio transmitter. It's not even a permanent structure, so it'll add value to the neighbourhood. Making a weird and wonderful antenna as an experiment is great for learning, it's great for experimentation and dealing with emergencies and it might keep your neighbourhood happy too - mind you, why anyone would think that an antenna is ugly is beyond me. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Tuning up strange antennas ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio During the week I received a funny picture from a fellow amateur. This particular image was one titled "Multitap Antenna" and it featured a Four Wheel Drive vehicle with a bull-bar and a spring base mounted antenna. The antenna was made from pipe and at suitable intervals the pipe had a t-piece with a tap. Nothing too peculiar, right? Well, other than that the taps were standard brass garden taps with a hose-quick release clip and hose fittings. Made me laugh. Anyway, that reminded me of a series of postings on Social Media about the random things people have used as antennas, from emergency bits of copper wire attached to flag-poles to get a local station back on the air during an emergency to tuning up wire fences, bed frames and the like. There's even a "Strange Antenna Challenge" with suggestions of ladders, baby chairs - presumably without the baby, umbrellas in trees and other fun stuff. Suggestions to contact your local TV station to promote the activity to bring back some fun into Amateur Radio. Now, why am I even talking about this? As Amateurs we take ourselves very seriously, so seriously that any idea that isn't following the norm is scoffed at. "This is how we do things around here" and "That will never work" are often heard in group discussions among the knowing elite of Amateur Radio. Here's the thing. We're Amateurs, experimenters, licensed to test, to play, to learn. What if you find yourself on the side of the road with an up-side-down vehicle with a perfectly working radio, but a broken off antenna? What would you do? What if a storm blew your antenna down, or it was destroyed by a flood? How would you cope? Would you bring out your trusty spare antenna and plug that in, or would it be helpful to have some experience with tuning up weird stuff and seeing what happens? For my money, I'd rather know an Amateur who can make the proverbial wet piece of string work, than the one who has the latest gadgets and gizmo's ready for that day that the emergency arrives. Hopefully their spare antenna will be in their car and not sitting in the Garage waiting for the emergency to arrive at the right time and place. So, if you did in fact have some fun and started playing, some of this is going to fail and some of it will work poorly and some of it won't work at all and you might damage your radio if you pump full power into a random piece of conductive material, but, you might also just come across some skills that you could use when it becomes essential, or when you're up a creek without a paddle. So, when you've done everything and are looking for the next challenge, have a look at the Strange Antenna Challenge, there's been activity going back over a decade featuring two cars as antennas, rail road tracks, a bronze statue, exercise machines, a football stadium and a bridge. The only requirements are that no wire and no metal pipe allowed. Remember to take a photo of your contraption, so you can share your adventure. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Do we really understand our hobby?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I was going to talk to you about Grid Dip Oscillators. Some research later I realised that I don't yet understand the topic enough to explain it to myself, let alone explain it to you. I then set my sights on a simpler thing, an SWR Meter. Pretty standard fare in a radio shack. You plug it in and off you go, nothing to it. So I then set about learning how this actually works. As you know, if it's written on the Internet, it must be true, and in this case, there must be a thousand different explanations and ways that this common black box works in your shack. Since I found so many different explanations that made me recall a quote: "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother." So, at this point I should sit down and explain it to you as if you're my grandmother, right? Unfortunately I'm not yet at that level of understanding, so I'll not add to the noise of explanation until such time as I do understand it. Instead I'm going to take a left turn and observe that Amateur Radio is full of explanations. Some of them great, many of them horrendous. I see Amateurs on-line arguing about how something works and then I hear them on-air doing more of the same. It occurs to me that where ever there is argument about how something works there is one of two things going on, lack of knowledge or lack of understanding. I'm not saying that every Amateur doesn't understand, I'm wondering if it's possible that our collective understanding of how our hobby works appears to be lacking in scientific rigour and that it's incomplete. I'm wondering how much of our hobby is actually understood and documented. While I'm here, I should point out that taking observations of a phenomenon isn't an explanation of how it works. The observations will get you places, but the unexpected or unobserved might get you killed along the way. I've said in the past that this hobby is like Magic and I still think that. The more I learn and understand about it, the more Magic comes in to play. This is what keeps drawing me back to this wonderful world of Amateur Radio. While I was searching for my SWR explanation I came across this little gem which speaks to me greatly and goes a long way to explaining why some of our hobby is so misunderstood: "the reason that your friends and ours cannot understand mathematics is not because they have no head for figures, but because they are unable to achieve the degree of concentration required to follow a moderately involved sequence of inferences" So, next time you sit down to explain how something works, bear that in mind, since following along a string of things that lead to an explanation might not be something your, or my, friends are willing to put up with. I wish I'd seen that quote before I attempted to explain why I had several antennas on the roof and couldn't just have one. Still learning... I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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SOTA goat adventures ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Last week I went on an adventure and came home with an experience. I've been wanting to go out and play radio for a while. Work has been spectacularly unhelpful in making time available to achieve this, not to mention the 17 million other things vying for my undivided attention. Last week the planets aligned and my outing came to pass. I'd set my sights on doing a SOTA activation. If you're not familiar with that, SOTA is an acronym for Summits On The Air and the aim is to get to the top of a mountain and make contacts from there. I've previously been under the tutelage and presence of some very experienced SOTA hams and during a conference in Canberra last year I managed to activate several summits with others. I even managed to survive walking up one peak on my own, using my hand-held to make some contacts. I use the word survive in less than ironic terms because I relied on Google Maps to navigate me up to the peak and for reasons best known to Google, it walked me up the side of the peak that didn't actually have a track, even though the map was adamant that I should follow the path. Many, many hours later, not properly dressed, not enough food, weather coming in, batteries running low, I managed to get back down safely and hobbled to a taxi who brought me back to my hotel. It was memorable, but not for the right reasons and it didn't involve HF communications and at the moment I'm struggling to recall if I actually logged those contacts. That will be a job for another day. Anyway, as I said, the planets aligned and I had a day to myself, access to the car, a charged radio battery pack, a working antenna and a map that worked. Mind you, I spent an hour fighting technology. First to register on the SOTA web-site, then to activate the software on my phone, then to get Google Maps to actually navigate me to the peak and for it to download the off-line maps, so I could navigate whilst out of mobile phone range. Lesson learned, plan to do the technology before the day. So, I set off an hour later than planned, but I was finally on my way. Google Maps again let me down by navigating a different route than I wanted, since I had the choice of more or less dirt road and I wanted less. Google picked the other one, even though I pointed it at the one I wanted. Another lesson learned, make sure that you add markers to your route before Google Maps starts you on your way, since there is no changing it once you're driving. After an hour and a bit I arrived at the top of the peak. If you're interested, it was Mount Dale, or SOTA peak VK6/SW-036, but before you go looking for my log, stick around, there's more to the story. So, I set-up my antenna, a multi-tap Outbacker and set it to 40m. I appeared to have mobile phone coverage, so I added my spot to the SOTA-watch website and started calling CQ. I managed my first contact within 8 minutes of my advertised time start time, so I was pretty chuffed. For the next few hours on 40m and 15m I managed contacts with 23 stations. The biggest distance I managed was 5353 km, or 1071 km per Watt. Not bad for a vertical antenna mounted to my car. I did some experiments along the way with turning my car around, getting better and worse signals, but overall it was great. I had a little play with 2m, but didn't manage anything other than talking on the local repeater, which is located 24 kilometres away and about 250 meters lower down. One friend suggested that there was a satellite pass coming over later in the day, but by the time I'd been there for four hours I was cooked. It wasn't spectacularly hot or anything, but it was time to go. No satellite this time, but something to add to my list of things to check. I came home and basked in the enjoyment of having gone out and made contacts, more than I'd managed for most of the year. Very satisfied. The next morning I found an email from the SOTA manager in VK6 who asked me about my operating environment. After...
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Passion and Politics
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I want to talk about Politics. I can hear you groan from here, so hold your horses, stow your tar and feathers and put your pitchfork back in the barn. Amateur Radio is a hobby. It's to do with electronics and physics and the ionosphere and other cool stuff. Some people call Amateur Radio a thousand hobbies in one and that's a pretty good description. Underlying Amateur Radio are the people. Those who have spent their time studying, learning new skills, doing tests, passing exams, as well as people who are interested bystanders, not necessarily licensed, but drawn towards the bounty that Amateur Radio as a hobby represents. An interesting phenomenon among people is their varying level of passion. Some people are passionate about their dog, others about their children, others are passionate about cars, or baking, or in our case, passionate about Amateur Radio. Passion has been explained to me once as a "big elephant". You sit on its back and it takes you where you want to go. Gentle nudging makes the elephant change direction, but if it gets excitable or startled, it'll go where ever it wants and all you can do is be a passenger and hold on tight. If you mix passion and Amateur Radio, there are times when that will result in heated discussion about the merits or pitfalls of a particular radio, an antenna or some other aspect of the hobby. If you group people together into radio clubs then those clubs are made of passionate individuals who come together to promote the objects of their club. As people group and discuss, opinions differ, goals morph and change and aims and objectives are blurred. Before long, you get special interest groups, proponents and opponents, elections, board meetings, stoushes, mis-management, legal action and the whole gamut of life. To complicate matters, Amateur Radio uses a public resource, radio spectrum. This is generally managed and maintained by a regulator, which in turn is generally managed by, politicians. What this means is that as a Radio Amateur you should not be surprised to learn that politics plays a part just as it does in the rest of society. I can still hear you muttering from here. My In-Box hasn't yet seen any derisive emails, but I can picture their arrival. What does this all mean? It means that Amateur Radio is not one thing. It never has been and never will be. For each individual there is a personal path to find and a journey to travel. For some this means that they'll become the Contester of the Year, for others it means that they'll invent a new gadget, others will use Amateur Radio as an excuse to travel the globe and others will use it to be the big cheese in their club. Your role is simple. Remember that this is a Hobby. That it's your hobby and that you have as much say in it as the next person. Remember also that this Hobby exists because we've been given access to a public resource and it's our responsibility as Amateurs to conduct ourselves in a manner that befits that public trust. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Coax vertical dipole and other musings ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio The other day I celebrated my sixth birthday, no not that one, the one that reminds me when I first became licensed as a Radio Amateur. It caused me to reflect on what I've done with my license and what I've learned and where I'm heading. A recurring theme in my Amateur life is one of upgrading. Not a month goes by when someone makes a comment about my license status. As you might know, I hold the entry level license in Australia, the Foundation License as it's called. Other countries call theirs different things, but the aim of this license type is to introduce new entrants into the hobby and for me it's done that in spades. If you've listened to some of my previous mutterings and musings, or if you've listened to all of them, heading for 300 now, you'll have noticed that it's rare that I'm not talking about something I learned, something new, or something that interests me that I've found and I want to share with the community. This quest for knowledge, learning and curiosity is something that I've always had and I'm sure I'm not alone with those traits. It occurred to me that my newly minted Amateur License achieved exactly what it intended to, Introduce me to Amateur Radio. It did more than that. It set me on a path that I'm travelling down today where I'm learning a new thing most weeks and telling others about it. I don't yet fully grasp the difference between an NPN and a PNP transistor, nor do I understand the workings of a Valve to the point where I can explain it to you, but the truth of the matter is that I haven't had the need to, or at this stage the curiosity to. That's not to say that a day will come when I do want to know. So here's the thing. Would you rather I have the highest level of license, having passed my test, cramming for my exam, guessing answers on a multiple-choice form, or would it be better if I came to know and understand the body of work that makes up the foundations of our hobby? As an aside, I have taken a mock test at some point. If I recall, I managed a score of 75% or so, might have been higher, but it outlined the areas of knowledge that I don't have at this time and that was why I took it in the first place. There are Amateurs who pass tests and then there are Amateurs who learn. One final comment about upgrading. When was the last time you upgraded your car license to the next level, say rally driver, or Formula-1 driver? When was the last time you got called out on not having upgraded and admonished for being a lowly car driver? Onto Amateur stuff. First of all, the wheel bearing has gone to a better place. It drove away on a big blue truck on Wednesday morning and is no longer. So sad. In antenna news, you may recall my experiences with the installation and tuning of an antenna for a friend of mine. I made all manner of what some would call outlandish statements, one Amateur all but called me a liar and accused me of making it all up to promote my podcast. All this excitement because I dared query the documentation of an Antenna. I've reached out to the manufacturer, but I've not yet received a response. I'm told that my hunch that this was a vertical dipole was correct. That in itself is curious since I've been experimenting with a vertical dipole made from coax, not enough to talk about success yet, but enough to be told that it will never work. Gotta love the doubters. As I suspected, the cut-off piece of inner coax, if you recall, the one that was a centimetre or so too long, is half of a capacitor, the other half is in the base of the antenna. Note that all this is based on what I've been told by a fellow amateur, and I'm looking forward to hearing from the manufacturer what they have to say. So, my vertical coax antenna idea started off with the idea that I wanted to use a vertical dipole for working portable. I realised that some of the designs I've seen knocking around the 'net are cutting off long chunks of shield, or folding it...
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Manufacturer drivel and antennas ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Let me start completely off-topic today with a thank you for emails and other expressions of concern regarding the demise of the bearing last week from my messy desk. I did not loose my marbles, other than the ball bearings in the disposed item and my sanity is as intact as it ever was. I was also asked for photos of the messy desk and as a concession to that I'll use a photo of the ball bearing for the podcast edition this week. How am I able to produce a photo of the disposed ball bearing? Truth be told, it's in the bin, the bin is in my office, but it wasn't emptied last week, since there was so little inside, so the ball bearing lives - until Tuesday when the bin will surely be emptied. Now, on to Amateur Radio matters, since that's why I'm here, though based on your emails, I'm not quite yet sure why you're here. Yesterday a good friend of mine, who tragically has yet to see the light and become a licensed Amateur came to me with a non-functioning antenna. He had purchased a so-called "Ground Independent Monopole" suitable for 380 to 520 MHz. You get no points for guessing that this was to be used for a CB installation on his vehicle. When you read the accompanying material, this magical antenna has a 4 dB improvement when compared to a 3 wave whip in the centre of a metal roof. But then when you look at the foot note, it talks about a 4 dB improvement over a 1/4 wave whip, but pattern tests only deliver a 2 to 2.5dB actual gain. I can hear you groaning from here. It leads me to several observations. As a licensed amateur you should be able to already spot holes as wide as a semi-trailer in those few statements. As amateurs we're often dismissive of the CB community, but how can they be held to account if manufacturers publish what looks to me like drivel of the highest order. The design itself is curious. There appears to be a loading coil in the base, the centre of the coax is trimmed to a specified length and inserted through the coil and electrical continuity exists between the radiating element and the coax shield. After spending some time trouble-shooting the installation I determined that the PL259 connector at the end wasn't actually soldered to the coax, so we fixed that. Using my antenna analyser we trimmed the vertical as specified, a couple of millimetres at a time, but it wasn't setting the world on fire with the updated SWR charts I was generating. We stopped trimming when we got close, since cutting off length is easy, cutting on length not so much. I then re-read the instructions and queried the length of the trimmed bit of inner coax that was inserted into the loading coil and found out that it was about a centimetre too long. Fingers crossed we trimmed that to length and the SWR chart improved. It still didn't set the world on fire, but at least the SWR wasn't 8 to 1 on CB Channel 40. Of course I've urged my friend to get an Amateur License, but that's ultimately their own choice. What I took away from the experience is that even a very basic Amateur License like the one I hold is sufficient to understand better what is going on and to be able to begin the process of trouble-shooting antenna installations. I thought I understood that this antenna was basically a vertical dipole, but at the moment I'm not sure and I'm wondering if the loading coil is actually a matching circuit and I wonder why the coax shield and the radiator are connected to each other. I'm sure the antenna is designed with the best intentions and I'm moderately confident that it works as intended. Now all we need to do is train the marketing department to talk to the engineering department before publishing their materials. For me the take-away is two fold. Don't blame a CB-er for their lack of knowledge, sometimes the manufacturer is to blame. The other take-away is that with a basic understanding of Amateur Radio you can help your fellow radio operator. Now, where on my desk is that...
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Messy shacks are the way we do things around here.
Foundations of Amateur Radio In my time as a member of the radio community I've been in around 30 different shacks and a similar amount of camp-out style activations. I've operated at least a hundred different radio set-ups with different operating styles, logging systems and power sources. I wouldn't say that I was particularly experienced, but I've seen enough to make some observations. My first observation is that radio shacks and set-ups tend to be messy. It's not unusual to see several radios, antenna tuners, amplifiers, switches, computers, power supplies, soldering iron and accumulated cruft in the form of resistors, wires, spare antennas, connectors, screws, knobs and globs of solder, all vying for space on the same bench at the same time. I'm looking at my own desk right now and I can count a hundred different objects within 60 seconds with no effort what-so-ever, and that's on a desk that's barely larger than a square meter in size. I'm not particularly messy in the scheme of things. There's no food on this desk - other than the cup of coffee I've just made and there's no globs of solder or other sticky things like oil and glue, but still. One of my friends remarked the other day that no matter how much space we have, we always seem to run out. He wondered why. At the time, my reply was something along the lines of: "Well, it's for the same reason as your bank-account never has enough money in it." While that observation is probably valid, I'd like to point out some side effects of a messy desk. If your intent is to operate the radio and get on air to make noise, there needs to be a working station. You need to be able to test it without having to move stuff around and fault finding needs to be part of the way the thing is set-up. One station I visited had solved this problem by moving their operating station away from the wall so they had two access points. The front where you operate the station and the back where you test it. That way you get to have your cake and eat it too. The set-up worked really well. Picture a few racks with gear, an operating desk arranged in an L-shape, but moved away from the wall, rather than pushed into the corner. Space limitations prevented you from walking all the way around it, but you could get to all but one side of one rack. All this was arranged into the space of a standard spare bedroom, pretty much the same as most shack's I've visited. I find myself looking around my own environment with this front-and-rear idea in mind and I'm having a think about how I might apply it. Another observation is that we never ever throw anything away, ever. I have seen antenna projects that were doomed to fail from day one, spare screws, bits of wood, drawers and drawers of random electronic components, bits of wire, cut-off connectors, damaged bits of coax, half-wound baluns, empty tubes of silicone, failed micro-switches, bent wave guides, broken windings, arced air-gap capacitors, empty boxes, plastic bags, old radio magazines, all waiting for the day that they become useful, likely never. I'm not saying that this cruft is never useful. I'm saying that the chances of them being useful is inversely proportional to the amount. That means, the more junk you have, the less useful it is. Perhaps culling is a way to increase the usefulness of what's left. The ultimate example of something like this is a Go-Cart wheel bearing that I have lying on my desk. It's a piece of precision engineering, but it's stuffed. It has completed it's useful service life, was discarded in the dirt and I picked it up, cleaned it, oiled it and now it sits on my desk. It looks great, feels nice to play with, but as objects go, it's one of the least useful items on my desk, otherwise filled with paper, computer gear and radio gear. I just made the bold step to toss it in the bin. Not yet sure how I feel about it, but I'll try by saying that it's the beginning of making the remaining cruft on my desk more...
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Amateur Radio Satellites ... more than two in the sky.
Foundations of Amateur Radio There are moments in your life when you say to yourself, duh, why didn't I think of this earlier? I had one of those last week. As you might recall, I have a hard time using HF communications from my home. There is lots of noise around and I've been going out mobile and portable to make contacts. As satisfying as that is, nothing beats sitting at home in your comfy chair with all the other home amenities. Ideally I have this notion that I should be able to do my hobby from home and have my cake and eat it too. Turns out, my duh moment was just that. I speak regularly on the local 2m repeater, in fact I host a weekly net called F-troop that encourages new and returning hams to get on air and make some noise in a friendly environment where no question is too silly and mistakes can be made on-air without subsequent yelling and carrying-on. So, I have a fully working HF radio at home, but it works just fine on 2m and 70cm. My duh moment was when I realised that there are a multitude of 2m and 70cm transmitters around that I could add to my tally of things heard and worked. There are websites dedicated to these transmitters and schedules exist to highlight when, how and where these things are. So, what am I talking about? The wonderful world of Amateur Radio Satellites. There are lots around, sending out idents, having uplink and downlink, sending out digital packets, you name it, the wide variety of Amateur Radio in a 90 minute orbit around the planet. I'll confess that I thought there were one or two doing the rounds, but there are a few more. Just counting the active ones, there are 85 satellites designed to be used by Amateurs at the moment, of course that changes all the time, going up and down as more are launched and others stop responding. In addition to this collection, there are other things you can listen out for, like weather satellites, the International Space Station and a bunch of other objects. I came across the N2YO website which shows you what's up in your sky right now, the foot print and direction, when it clears the horizon, in which direction and what the highest elevation is and when it vanishes again, all very helpful in getting half a chance to hear the transmission in the first place. I've said this before, this hobby is magic. I can't do HF, so now I'm playing with satellites. Looks like I'm going to have to sort out some digital decoding software as well, since many of the satellites have all manner of non-Morse code transmissions, APRS, digital modes, graphics, etc. Lots to learn. Did I mention that you could do much of this with a hand-held radio? Power is not a problem and an external antenna is likely all you'll need. By the way, this is what I like about Amateur Radio, there are so many different aspects to this hobby, so much variety, so many things to learn and experience and I have only just scratched the surface. It bears repeating that a beginner's licence in Amateur Radio gives you access to all this and most of the things I've been talking about since I started talking about the hobby back in 2011. I've been licensed now for a little more than a minute and a half, but I still get a pleasant surprise on a regular basis about the size and scope of my chosen hobby. There's no excuse, getting bored with Amateur Radio is just not an option. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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DTMF is something we use regularly ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Ingenuity is the name of the game in Amateur Radio, building, inventing, solving and helping are all part and parcel of this hobby. We like to lay claim to being the source of all that is good in the world, all that was invented came from Amateur Radio first, right? Seriously though, sometimes we pick up a technology along the way from other places. If you've ever picked up your microphone and pushed one or more buttons on it whilst the push to talk button was down, you've likely used this technology that's set out in an ITU recommendation called Q.23. It has the quaint title of: "Technical Features of Push-Button Telephone Sets". It's a brief document as such, all of four pages, two title pages and one mostly dealing with why this Push-Button idea is a great one and how it relates to international phone calls etc. The meat is in the final page, showing eight frequencies and how you combine them to generate voice frequency signals. If you've been paying attention, you might recognise this as DTMF or Dual Tone Multiple Frequency signalling. It's pretty nifty. Send two discrete frequencies at the same time across some link and decode it at the other end. It's nifty because these frequencies might happen during a normal conversation, but not at the same time for a particular duration. As Amateurs we use this to communicate with our repeaters, to send signals to it, to activate links, to power on and off stuff and all manner of other interesting things. So, how does it actually work? Well, you have two sets of four non-overlapping frequencies which you can combine into 16 different combinations, enough for 10 digits, four letters and two symbols. To make this work, the frequencies must be pretty stable, the ITU recommends less than 1.8% off the nominal frequency and distortion must be 20 dB below the fundamental frequencies. Today producing such a thing is trivial, a chip for a dollar will do the job and another one at the other end to decode it. Four bucks and you're good to go for two-way DTMF at both ends. Bargain. Being the curios type I went looking to find out what a DTMF circuit might look like before we could buy such products. The closest I came was a build-your-own voice mail system in BYTE! magazine of April 1982 using LM567 tone decoders, but a quick look at the box shows that these are also something that we'd call an Integrated Circuit. I'm going out on a limb here, since DTMF has been around since it was first supplied to customers in 1963 and suggest that the original DTMF decoders were not quite as trivial as a dollar chip. They likely contained many discrete components including eight separate filters and ways to combine them so signals could be added to each other to detect the existence or absence of a specific tone, but I've yet to actually lay eyes on anything more fundamental than the tone decoders. That being said, you can connect your all-in-one dollar chip, the CM-8870, to something like an Arduino and do your own decoding of DTMF signals. Seems that the 1982 BYTE! magazine article was just the beginning of the revitalisation of DTMF, robot controllers, home automation, in-vehicle signalling and more, not to mention, using it to activate IRLP and other wonderful radio services. Before you start sending me email about this non-Amateur invention, I'll point out that Amateurs also didn't invent copper wire, that was two Scots, or was it Dutch, I forget, fighting over a coin. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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The joy of Amateur Radio
Foundations of Amateur Radio Last week over dinner I was chatting with a friend about Amateur Radio in a discussion about things that take your fancy. I was attempting to explain what it specifically was about this hobby that keeps me coming back. I talked about invention, about exploration, about fishing and catching that elusive station, but looking back over that discussion it occurred to me that none of that is what "does it" for me. Sure, those things are part of it, but it's not what makes me turn on my radio, what has my face light up in delight or allows me to get out of bed in the middle of the night to explore the bands. A brief phone call with another Amateur to wish him Happy Birthday twigged me to what's going on. He asked me: "What's new in your world?", and my answer, innocuous at best was: "Well, last weekend I heard a Japanese station from my QTH." In the past I've mentioned that I've made many contacts with Japan, looking at my log, 63 of them, on 10m and 15m, so the fact that I heard Japan wasn't particularly special. I don't recall the band on which I heard the station, so that's not it either. What was different was that I heard it at home, my QTH. The place where there is S7 or higher noise all the time, where I cannot put up a full antenna and make do with a dipole in the garage and a single band vertical on the roof. Looking back at the conversation it occurred to me that what I like about Amateur Radio is the unexpectedness of it, the surprises that come your way, like little gifts waiting to be unpacked. It reminded me of a journey coming back from a club meeting last year when I spent the time going through the entire frequency range of my radio. There's quite a bit to visit. The radio in the car does 100 kHz through to 56 MHz as a single range, then has several other ranges. My hand-held is capable of 500 kHz through 999 MHz. Between the two I have the ability to pick up most of the stuff that's around. If that's not enough, there are many online radio receivers to connect to using all manner of different tools, the simplest to get running is probably WebSDR, where you visit a web-page and pick out the frequency you want to hear. All this RF activity is happening all around us all the time. There's the local Top-40 radio station, the talk back shows, the local community stations, single frequency specialist broadcasters, the local public transit authority, etc. etc. You never know what you're going to find and what you're going to hear. Many Amateurs I speak to started off as short-wave listeners. I had a short-wave radio when I was growing up, but it never much did anything for me. Now that I'm an Amateur and I understand what's happening to make those distant signals arrive at my ear, I'm becoming the short-wave listener I never was. That's what I like about Amateur Radio. Unexpected gifts being shared across the globe from people, cultures and experiences that bring us all together. For me, Amateur Radio is about the thirst for curiosity, the never ending supply of wonder and the joy in hearing them arrive un-announced at my doorstep. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Where do you start with this Amateur thing?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Being on air and getting on air are part of the journey that you undertake when becoming a Radio Amateur, but what happens before all that, what do you need to get your foot in the door as it were? If you're listening to this via a radio, you're already on the journey, but if you've downloaded this as a podcast, you're not far behind and your journey towards becoming a Radio Amateur is just around the corner. Let's start with a few things before I start with the journey itself. First of all, every country is slightly different, so while I can give you specific examples, they'll be valid for only a few people. In becoming a Radio Amateur you'll have to undertake some learning, pass a test and get a license. This license is specific to you and for most, if not all Amateurs, the license itself is for life. That means that if you have already passed an Amateur License Test in your past, you're likely still a Licensed Amateur today. Being a Licensed Amateur, or having a License, doesn't actually mean that you can operate your own station, for that to happen, you need a callsign and the requirements for a callsign are that you have a license. It's like learning to drive. Once you've passed your driving test you're able to drive a car, but you need a current drivers' license to actually get behind the wheel. In most cases there are different levels of license. Going back to the car analogy, you can drive a car, a moped or a truck, but not with the same license. In Amateur Radio there are several different types of licenses. For example in Australia there are three, in increasing level of responsibility, a Foundation License, a Standard License and an Advanced License. In the United States there are also three, The Technician License, the General License and the Amateur Extra License. In the United Kingdom there are also three, the Foundation License, the Intermediate License and the Full License. Germany has two types and calls them Class E and Class A. In essence the idea is that with more learning comes more responsibility and a change of license. To muddy the waters a little, as time passes and Amateur Radio evolves, license types change and merge, new ones are introduced and old ones vanish. For example, to my knowledge there are no countries requiring Morse Code as a skill for an Amateur License. That wasn't always the case and until 2003 the World Radio-communication Conference essentially left it to individual countries to decide if Morse Code was a requirement for specific privileges. As an aside, Citizen Band or CB, where anyone can walk into a shop, buy a CB radio and use it without passing a test and getting a license is fundamentally different in that the license is linked specifically to the radio itself. There is still a license, and to operate, the license needs to be current, but it's intrinsic to the radio itself. Amateur Radio has the license linked to the person, rather than the radio. Now that you know a little about the landscape, the next step on your journey towards becoming an Amateur is a little less nebulous. It's probably a good place to start at the beginning and work your way through that and as time goes on and your confidence and experience improves, to add to the learning and do the next thing as it occurs to you. I should point out that there are Amateurs who believe that it should be your goal to get the highest level of responsibility, but my perspective on this is quite different. This is a hobby, your hobby. If you want more responsibility, then go do some learning and pass a test. If you're happy to do what you're doing, then do that. Don't let anyone tell you that you must increase your learning, just because they tell you to or that it's the done thing. For me, I've set a personal goal to work a hundred countries using 5 Watts and every contact I make counts towards that. If you've been listening for a while you might have noticed that I've not...
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What happens if you move the feed point in a dipole?
Foundations of Amateur Radio One of the recurring topics in on-air discussion is that of antennas and if we were to graph the topics of conversations, antennas would be the clear winner in any line-up. As a beginning Amateur this phenomenon bamboozled me for a very long time. Why are these people talking about antennas all the time and what's there to know that you can't say in 30 seconds? From the mouths of babes... I've mentioned in the past that Amateur Radio is to a very large degree magic. Another way of expressing that is to say that there is an Art to being an Amateur and antennas play a big part. A friend of mine loaned me his antenna kit called a Buddipole. It's a portable set-up that is akin to Meccano or Lego in that you can build up an antenna from parts and make a large range of antennas from the same basic parts, two coils, a feed point, a balun, two telescopic whips and some extension pieces. For me this particular antenna has been temperamental and I couldn't get my head around how to make it work. This all changed last weekend when I had a spare 15 minutes, literally, 15 minutes when I went into the shed to have another look. This was spurred on by a note that I'd read that pointed out that the Buddipole is asymmetric, that is, both legs and coils are not the same. This important tid-bit of information made things click in my mind and all of a sudden I realised that I didn't need to make both sides the same length, or adjust both sides in the same way. Until that moment I'd always thought of the Buddipole as a dipole on a stand and expected like any traditional dipole it would have both legs at the same length. What if you could move the feed point along the length of your dipole, what would happen? What if you kept the overall length the same, but by making one end longer and the other end shorter, you in effect were moving the feed point along your dipole? Wonderful things start to happen, that's what. What I'm saying is that you don't have to make a dipole have equal length legs and that sometimes this is desirable. Previously I've mentioned that the height of a dipole, the wire thickness, the ends, the angle and so on all affect the feed point impedance. Turns out, that where you place the feed point also affects this. If you recall basic antenna theory, you might recall that the middle of a dipole is the lowest impedance and that the end of a dipole is the highest impedance. Each of these values are on a continuum, that is, they vary as you change things. That means that between the two extremes of impedance there are other in-between values. If you have a balun, you can use this to get a great match for your antenna by tweaking these values. Another example of this continuum is a loop antenna. If you make it twice as high as wide, the feed point impedance is 50 Ohm, but if you use the same loop and squash it flat, the impedance is 300 Ohm. Varying the shape changes the impedance. In essence this means that there is an infinite number of antennas that can be made just as a dipole and another infinite number of antennas that can be made as a loop. So, just two antenna types alone already gives you a lifetime supply of options and that's ignoring the height, soil or wire. Now you understand why antennas are tricky and why we talk about them so much. It also explains why the Internet is full of different explanations on antennas, since they are all based around the local conditions under which the author is describing their adventure. Next time you hear an Amateur going on about their antenna, perhaps there's something to take away. I know I won't be anywhere as impatient listening to others talking about their contraptions. Final thought. A vertical is a dipole too. The radials are one half, the vertical the other. You can change the length of either, or both, but you can also feed the antenna in a different location. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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DX, common ground on a common term?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Have you ever been on air and in the middle of a wonderful discussion that all of a sudden and often unexpectedly erupts into a heated argument about nothing? One of those conversations that came to mind was about what the term DX means. I'd been taught that DX means outside the country and if you're calling CQ DX, I was taught that this means that you're looking for a contact in the next country. So. What's the argument? Simple really. In a nutshell, making a contact between Perth and Sydney, nearly 3300 kilometres apart is inside one country, but making a contact across the same distance between say Amsterdam and Lebanon, is about nine countries away. This really means that for every station DX has a different meaning. So, this DX caper means different things for different people. I've said in the past that I'd laughed when a station made a big deal about contacting Japan, when that's something I do regularly. The opposite effect happened when I contacted Cuba. For me it's a contact on the other side of the planet, for them it's next door. I asked around for explanations from others about what they thought DX meant: - Receiving signals & station from remote locations - Long distance, harder to achieve contacts. - Doesn't have to be international, all frequency dependant. - VK[234] to VK6 is DX ;) - Outside of my suburb ! - Anything hard I suppose, or anything "overseas" The take away should be that DX-ing is an activity that means different things to different people. You could put it down to kilometres, or countries, it really doesn't matter. Just be prepared that your measure may not apply to the other station. Ironically, thinking back to one of my earlier on-air experiences. I called CQ-DX and got a reply that said something along the lines of "What kind of DX are you expecting?" to which I replied: "Anything I can get." is put into a different context by the knowledge that DX is not a fixed idea. At the time I thought that I had done something wrong and that my activities were some how incorrect. Checking with the amateurs nearby at the time, it transpired that this wasn't the case. My insight into the variation of something that looks like a simple concept, DX, puts a different light on the subject. I'm highlighting this because I think it's important to understand that when you're on air, you're bringing with you the experiences you have and you're communicating with others who may, or may not share those experiences and understandings, even for something as obvious and common as the concept of DX. It also spurs me on to continue to develop my QSL card. If you've sent me one and I've not sent you one back, it's because I'm still very unhappy with the design I've got and I'm working on something that's more me, more Australia and captures the essence of the idiosyncrasy that is me. If you're wondering what a QSL card is, think Amateur Radio Postcard. The name derives from something called the Q-Codes, shortcut names used originally in telegraphy, then by Amateurs in Morse, now also heard in all general conversation on air. The code "QSL" means "Can you acknowledge receipt?" when asked as a question, or it means "I am acknowledging receipt." when used as an answer. The card was named after this as a way to confirm contacts between stations. A QSL card generally contains your callsign, their callsign, the time, date, the band or frequency, the mode and signal reports of the contact. Some go overboard with whole novels, include general information about the station, perhaps a picture of your friendly face, or some other image. Traditionally, interesting locations, like say Amsterdam Island, activated as FT5ZM go all out in making their cards, since the location is desirable and the card should be as well. One final comment. To work DX, you need to be on-air, so get your station in good working order, turn it on and make noise. Making contacts, local and DX is about being...
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Propagation is everywhere!
Foundations of Amateur Radio Recently I talked about making a propagation map in your mind by listening to the various NCDXF beacons across the globe on various HF bands. You're not limited to listening to a beacon to learn what propagation is like. If I tell you that listening to a band gives you an indication on what's going on, you're likely to respond with: "Duh". But what if I suggest that instead of listening to a DX station running a pile-up, you instead listen to the stations calling? Back in January 2014, episode 133, when this series was still called "What use is an F-call?", I explained what "Listening 10-up" means and how you operate in a so-called split mode. As you might recall, working split is about dealing with the phenomenon that a weak DX station working in some desirable location is likely to be overwhelmed by stronger signals, to the point of no longer being heard. It's a good skill to learn and you should try and work both sides, being the station calling a DX, but also being the one getting swamped. As I said, normally you're the one calling the DX station and you don't particularly care about the other stations swamping the band. What if you did? What if you used their signals to figure out where propagation was happening? If you did that, you could perhaps point your antenna in the correct direction, or specifically focus on calling for stations in that area, or listen out for stations in that region in other parts of the band. The thing is, propagation doesn't care what the signal is. As long as you can decode it in what ever way you prefer, Mark I ear-drum, or some fancy decoder, it doesn't matter. If you can hear the signal, it means it's getting from them to you. I should note a word of caution here. It's taken me several years to realise that I could often hear many stations that had no chance of hearing me. I'd crank up the volume on the radio, listen out for anything and try to work what I heard. Sometimes you get a great result, and you shouldn't discount those, but often all I got for my trouble is a sore head from decoding mush. What I learned, especially as a low power operator - I use 5 Watts - if the other station isn't coming in with a reasonable signal strength, S5 or higher, then there's little point. There is a concept of reciprocity. The idea is that if you can hear them, you can work them. For some power levels that might actually be true, but for the rest of us, a fine grain of salt should be added to the mix. Before you start in on me telling me I'm wrong, perhaps consider the variations in local environment, antenna differences, not to mention variation in the Ionosphere or alligators, all mouth and no ears running several kilowatts. The take-away in all this should be that propagation is everywhere. You can use it to hunt for likely contenders and no signal on the band should be ignored as a potential source of propagation information. One final thought. You can also reverse this. Turn on a web based receiver in some desirable part of the world, pick a frequency and then using your radio, call CQ and see if you can hear yourself across the web. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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The birth and legacy of IRLP.
Foundations of Amateur Radio Technology is a moving feast. New ideas spring new inventions which in turn change our lives. Amateur Radio is at the forefront of such inventions. Radio Amateurs have been until recently the only soldering iron brigade around. We've been building things for over a hundred years and we continue as a community to think of new ideas and ways to make them happen. For example, we take technologies like AllStar Link, EchoLink, Wires and so on all in our stride. We think nothing of having our radios connected to each other using techniques other than radio spectrum. In November 1997, when iPhone still meant Internet Phone, an inquisitive 22 year old amateur called Dave Cameron VE7LTD came up with a way to link a radio to the Internet and the first three Internet Radio Linking Project stations were connected to each other and the now global network of IRLP nodes was born. Dave built a DTMF decoder which allowed remote control of a computer and the radio that was attached to it, and made it possible to send the audio from the radio to the sound-card of the computer, which in turn sent that audio in digital format across the Internet to a similarly equipped system where the audio was turned back into a radio transmission. This bridging idea took off and many different systems were developed, many of which are in active use today. The various systems all use some form of Voice over IP to transmit audio across the Internet, but there are many variations on how the audio gets to the system in the first place. In IRLP - as I mentioned - the audio can only come in via an Amateur Radio. EchoLink uses a similar system, but in addition to Amateur Radio as a source, you can register your callsign and use several different applications on your computer or mobile phone to link into the network. AllStar takes this idea further, instead of making a point-to-point connection, the AllStar system is based around an open source telephone exchange called Asterisk and it's used to link together the various systems. Other variations also exist. The idea of using Voice over IP techniques spawned a whole set of radio technologies that use similar methodologies to compress voice and then instead of transmitting it across the Internet, use radio waves to send them from one radio to the next. Technologies such as D-Star, System Fusion, MotoBro and DMR built on this idea. Of course these technologies also use the Internet to share information and connect users across the globe. There is some contention around these systems. Many Amateurs consider them to be "Not Real Radio", but then I suspect if you look at the birth of SSB, you'll find die-hard CW operators with a similar complaint. The same is true for low power propagation modes like WSPR which aren't real radio because you cannot have a QSO. Other issues in the technical sphere also exist. The IRLP software is closed source. You can only buy IRLP hardware from one place and it doesn't allow you to connect in any other way than via a radio. EchoLink now charges for conferences being registered in the system. In the past I've already spoken about Fusion, D-Star and MotoBro and their restrictions around interoperability, licensing and closed source nature. From a practical perspective, there are also concerns about the use of these systems in the case of massive failures during local disasters and the like. If the Internet is down, many of these systems will simply become local radio networks. Coverage could perhaps be extended by creating a local mesh network, but HF radio still very much has its place in our world. For me this is all about learning and innovation. Ultimately which system you use is up to you. I live in a software world where Open Source rules for good reason and my vote will always go to Open Source. To be clear, I'm not adverse to making money, we all have to pay the rent, but making innovation and invention secret is not the way to go in our...
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Make your own propagation map!
Foundations of Amateur Radio The world is your oyster, but sometimes you need to find a way to test what is going on with your station and determine what is working and what isn't. Often I turn my radio on to scanning mode and I set it to scan the Northern California DX Foundation beacons. These beacons, perhaps better known as the NCDXF beacons can be heard across five different HF frequencies, on 20m, 17m, 15m, 12m and 10m. These beacons repeat in a cycle that lasts three minutes, covering 18 different transmitters located in countries scattered around the globe. Beacons exist in New York City at the United Nations, in two other locations across the US, in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Russia, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Israel, Finland, Madeira, Argentina, Peru and Venezuela. Each beacon rotates through each frequency and then waits three minutes to transmit on the same frequency again. Each transmission contains the station callsign, sent in 22 words per minute Morse code, followed by four one-second beeps. The callsign and the first beep is sent using 100 watts, the next one uses 10 watts, the third beep is sent with 1 watt and the final one uses 100 milliwatts. What this does is give you a pretty accurate map of what you can hear on what frequency at this time with your station. Another way to think of this is as a propagation map that actually uses your station as the receiver. If you can't hear 'm, you can't work 'm. If your radio doesn't scan across frequencies very well, there's nothing wrong with listening on one frequency for 3 minutes, switching to the next and so on; 15 minutes later you'll know what propagation is like around your station. You can find full details about this whole beacon system on ncdxf.org and I should mention that there are many other beacons around that provide signals for you to listen to. As an aside, this system is precisely what prompted me to start the process of learning Morse Code. I'm still at it and you should not take my slow progress as anything other than me being distracted by the other things that are happening in my life. If you need something more active and participatory to get a sense of the operation of your station, you should have a listen to the 7130 DX net. It happens every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9:30am UTC on 7.130 MHz +/- QRM. Next time I'll talk about how that works and what you might gain from having a go. I'm Onno VK6FLAB.
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How to melt coax ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Recently I made a comment about melting your coax and that this was a bad thing. Today I'm going to talk about some of how this comes about and what kinds of parameters we're dealing with. Let's start with coax itself. The operating temperature of coax is somewhere around 80 to 90 Degrees Celsius, or 176 to 194 Fahrenheit. Soldering is at 230 Celsius, or 446 Fahrenheit, so for starters, soldering coax is a risky adventure. For argument's sake, let's assume that you managed to solder your coax without damaging it. What else can go wrong? Let's have a look at high voltage transmission lines. Why do we move power around the place using high voltage lines? The answer is that in a high voltage line, the current is low. Where the current is low, heating is low, so more of the energy gets from the power-station to your shack and less of it is used to heat up the power line between the power station and you. So, that means that high voltage and low current is less heat loss. The opposite is also true. Low voltage and high current is more heat loss. Now if you look at a dipole antenna, you'll know that this contraption is moving energy around at some or other frequency. As it's doing that, there are high and low voltage points and high and low current points. In a half-wave dipole, the high voltage points are at the ends of the antenna, and the high current points are at the feed-point. Guess where your coax is? So, you've got your connection to your antenna located at a high current point, in the place where high current has the potential to create problems, things like heating up your coax and potentially melting it. So, when does this heating happen? Well, you need high resistance and high current. This typically happens when you've got a bad connector at the feed-point. In practical terms this means that if you're using QRP, 5 Watts, you're unlikely to come across a situation where this becomes an issue, since the currents aren't that high and a bad connection typically means no contacts. If on the other hand you're using high power, then make sure that the connection to your antenna is strong, solid, and water proof so it doesn't deteriorate to the point of melting and then killing your radio. It's best to keep an eye on the SWR meter when you're working, since a high SWR might be indicating that the resistance at your antenna changed for the worse. Final comment. When you've set-up your station, create a note of the SWR at different frequencies and refer back to that regularly. Spotting a problem early might just prevent some expensive maintenance later on. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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What is SWR?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I'm going to talk about SWR or Standing Wave Ratio. As amateurs we use this term all the time, we expect to see it on a meter or display near our transmitter, we buy specific gadgets to measure it and often we seek to find the lowest possible SWR. As I've said in the past, the perfect antenna cannot exist, in the same way, a perfect connection, the feed-line, between an antenna and transmitter can also not exist. The perfect match is a 50 Ohm match, but a dummy load is a perfect match and its purpose is specifically not to radiate. So what's all this about then? Lets start in a swimming pool for a moment. Imagine that this pool is really long and skinny. Say 100m long and 1cm wide. Stand on one side and make a splash. The ripple of the water radiates from the source of the splash, you, to the other end of the pool. The end wall bounces the ripple back to you, and bounces back and forth until all the ripples have dissipated. Now, if you kept splashing about, and waves were rippling back and forth while you were splashing, some of the ripples would happen at the same time as a splash and some of the ripples would happen at the time between two splashes. That means that at some times the splash and the reflections would sit on top of each other, making a higher wave and at some times splashes and reflections would be sitting below each other, making the troughs between splashes deeper. If you replaced the water with electricity and the pool with a transmission line, the same is true. If you made an electronic splash, say a transmission from your radio, into the feed-line, the ripple would travel along the feed-line, bounce off the end, come back, bounce off the radio and so on. In the same way, reflections and transmissions can add to each other, and they can also subtract from each other. This difference between the addition of signals and the subtraction of signals is what we call the SWR. There are two ways to get to the SWR. If you connect a 50 Ohm feed-line to a 100 Ohm antenna, the SWR is 2:1. This is a theoretical SWR and it tells you is that there will be a ripple coming back from the antenna that is both adding and subtracting from the original transmission. Alternatively we could use an SWR meter to measure the voltage differences between the high and the low part of a wave and indicate on a dial what the SWR is. This is an actual SWR. The two are indicating the same thing and we can use that to get from a measurement to an understanding of impedance matching between the feed-line and the antenna. As a point of reference, if there are no ripples bouncing back, then there is no addition or subtraction, and the resulting SWR is 1:1. For completeness, I should point out that the rabbit hole is much deeper than this explanation and I'll revisit this topic in the future. Now for the final piece of the puzzle. A piece of coax in Amateur Radio is 50 Ohm. If you have an antenna that is 50 Ohm, that's perfectly fine as an antenna system. Of course, antennas are not so accommodating. A dipole has a feed-point impedance of about 75 Ohm. A folded dipole has a feed-point impedance of about 300 Ohm. Each different antenna system has a different impedance and thus needs a different transmission line connected to it. So, if you look at a 50 Ohm coax connected to a 300 Ohm folded dipole, you know that the SWR is going to be 6:1. However if you connected a 300 Ohm ladder-line to the same folded dipole, the SWR would be 1:1. What this means is that the coax would have waves rippling back and forth and the ladder-line would not. The coax would have a particular loss and each ripple going back and forth would be subjected to that loss, where on the ladder-line, the loss would only apply once, on the outbound leg, since no energy would be bouncing back. As an aside, this loss is experienced as heat and if you're not careful it will melt your coax or worse. That's not to say that SWR...
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What is station security?
Foundations of Amateur Radio One of the tick boxes we're required to deal with is the one titled "Station Security". As licensed amateurs we're required to secure our station from use by unauthorised people. What form does that take, how do you do it, what makes it secure and how much security is enough? I spent a bit of time looking around to see if there were any guidelines I could unearth to actually describe in detail what this might actually mean, but my Google Fu is clearly broken, since I was unable to find any such documentation. That's not to say that it doesn't exist, just that it's well hidden among the hits about encryption, broadcasting music and other spurious results. What form does this requirement take in your shack? Do you tick the box and move on, or have you taken specific actions to comply with this requirement? For me, I have two shacks. One in my office and one in my car. Taking the car first, the security of my mobile shack is based around the notion that my car is locked when I'm not around. Technically my partner also uses the car and it's not directly under my control at that time, but the flip side of that is that the radio needs to be manually connected to a battery, the head of the radio needs to be connected to the patch lead, the antenna needs to be screwed in and the coax switch needs to match the band you're trying to operate on. These things are not complicated for an amateur, but for a member of the public they form several barriers to entry before they could actually operate my station. In my office, where I mostly operate on VHF due to the high noise level on HF, security takes a similar form. It's in a locked house, that is, if I'm not home, the house is locked. Similarly, when my partner is around they technically can get to the station. The same is true for any guests to our house. Security again is a multi-level activity. The radio needs to be connected to power, the antenna needs to be connected to the correct port, the remote head needs to be connected correctly and if all that is done, you can operate my station. There are no specific locks on my radio; the same is true for any station I've ever visited. All of the clubs I'm a member of have a room or a box with a lock on it which is one barrier, but once that is breached, the radio behind it is good to go. This whole topic is an example of how we legislate for a particular thing, in this case preventing use by an unauthorised person, but don't actually specify what that means. So, what type of security does your station have? What's enough security and what isn't? Is my station legal or not? What makes it so? What about your station? It's easy to read the rules and tick the box, but sometimes the tickbox is a deep rabbit hole. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Unpredictable radio waves ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Radio Waves travel in straight lines. They go from point to point and that's it. Except that Radio Waves also reflect off certain surfaces, like light does. So, Radio Waves travel in straight lines and they also reflect and that's it. Except that Radio Waves also change direction when they pass through some change of medium. So, then, Radio Waves travel in straight lines and they also reflect and refract and that's it. Except that Radio Waves also bend when they encounter an obstacle or a slit. So, ok that's it. Radio Waves travel in straight lines and they also reflect and refract and diffract and that's the end of it. Except that they turn slightly due to gravity when they pass by a large mass. So, this phenomenon that we use in our hobby every time we key up a transmitter or listen to an off-air signal is doing much that is invisible. It bends and wobbles, bounces and shifts, reflects and refracts and somehow we still manage to make our signal get from here to there. The reason I'm raising this at all is that all new entrants to the hobby often scratch their head when they start transmitting. Antennas and propagation aside, the humble hand-held portable radio, the walkie talkie, or handitalky, or whatever you call it, does some weird stuff. Some people use it like a mobile phone, other talk into it like they're summoning the oracle, others wave it about and hover around metal doorways or hold it close to their body and walk about while they're talking. I host a weekly radio net, you should check it out some day, Saturday Morning, 0:00 to 1:00 UTC, it's called F-troop and we get lots of different skill levels and experiences sharing stories and answering questions. Many times we have amateurs who are using a hand-held and getting unexpected results. This variable, fluid nature of radio waves is why this happens. Each tiny variation causes some effect and some outcome. Resulting in a wildly fluctuating signal that varies between loud and clear and inaudible and all steps in between. And that's not even talking about flat batteries or trying to talk through a hill to a local repeater. My point is that radio waves are unpredictable. If you are using your radio in an unpredictable way while using an unpredictable medium like radio, then all bets are off. Next time you key up your hand-held, spare a thought for what's happening between your antenna and mine. I'm Onno VK6FLAB.
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Learning from your mistakes ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio To do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome is the definition of insanity; so how do you avoid making the same mistakes on-air in Amateur Radio? During the week I was wading through some old photos and videos on my phone to make some space and I stumbled on some old videos taken by others and sent to me whilst I was on-air. It was a lovely look back at some previous activity, but they also made me cringe. Here's one example, the very first time, back in 2011, I did a local contest, using the club callsign VK6AHR: == One One. My number to you is uh, one zero four, uh V K Six Alpha Hotel Romeo to V K Six Alpha Romeo, my number to you is one zero four. == It's only that I know I was using the club callsign that I know who I am and who the other station is, in this case the other station was VK6AR. My exchange was 104, but clear as mud and twice as thick. These days I'd say something much less convoluted, something like: VK6AR, 59104 from VK6AHR Here's another attempt from me in my early days, calling DX using my own callsign: == "CQ DX, CQ Delta Xray, this is Victor Kilo Six Fox Lima Alpha Bravo calling CQ DX" == CQ Delta Xray, what was I thinking? Actually, I was emulating another amateur. So what you say, while there are new amateurs in your shack, matters. Also, I noticed that I started the bad habit of saying Fox instead of Foxtrot. Fortunately one of my listeners wrote in to nip that in the bud early on. My point in sharing these evolutions of my on-air style is that you might experience me as a practiced amateur, but just like you, I had to learn by making mistakes and being told I was making mistakes. Fortunately there was some video evidence to help in my innocent education stages. So, from your perspective, next time you get on air, try and record some of your activity and have a listen back. I've done this with new amateurs and old-hands and it's absolutely staggering how much you learn from having a listen to yourself. So, when you get on air to make some noise, record it for education purposes and listen back. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Paper Logging tips and tricks ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio There was a time when I took my computer out into the field to do my portable logging. That's still true for contests, but when I'm hunting for an elusive DX station, I no longer take with me all the bits that are required to make that level of technology work. I've come to the realisation that less is more. Especially with portable operations in parks and on summits. This move to paper will actually simplify your life whilst you're enjoying the rare stations you can hear. So, if you're using paper logs and you are wanting to make actual contacts, how do you do this without going insane? Normally you'd find a station, log their call, put down the frequency, scratch it out when the contact failed, rinse and repeat. The end result is a page full of scratched out callsigns with no structure and little chance to accurately log these into your normal station log. The best way to overcome this is to take a leaf from N1MM, a brilliant piece of logging software that deserves a whole separate segment and when I'm sufficiently proficient with it, I'll do just that. In the meantime, one of the things you can do with N1MM is mark a station. This mark consists of a callsign and a frequency. Technically it also consists of a mode and a time-stamp, but lets not get too carried away. On paper, if you format your log-sheet appropriately, you can use a separate line for each station you hear. Log the frequency while you're writing down the callsign. If you're inclined, you can also write down their name and any other salient details you hear as you're browsing past. What this does is set up a framework for you to log your calls. When you actually make contact, then you can enter the signal report and the time. That way you can instantly see which of the lines contain actual contacts and which of them contain stations heard. Sometimes I write down their signal strength as I note the station, but that's a pretty variable thing, so do that in moderation. When you've actually completed the contact, make a mark, either an exclamation point or two, or an asterisk, or something that you recognise. That way when you're sitting in front of your station log, you can quickly log those specially marked contacts and add them to your DXCC tally. This same technique works well during search and pounce operation during a contest, though I personally am unlikely to use paper for contest logging; N1MM is very helpful in keeping track for you. As a bonus, N1MM allows a station to expire, so your screen isn't filled with stations that are no longer there. I should point out that I'm making the assumption that you're the one responding to another station, rather than sitting on a frequency calling CQ. If you're doing that, just log their callsign as they come past, keep track of the time and write down any signal reports when they're happening. That way you don't get ahead of yourself and you'll end up with a log that still makes sense later on. Logging is important for your own benefit. Some jurisdictions require a station log, for others it's optional. If you're interacting with other stations, logging their call is a courteous thing to do. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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The FM Capture Effect and other Amateur Radio magic...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I'm going to talk about magic. In the past I've made mention of the magic that is Amateur Radio. There are those who think that our hobby isn't magic and that everything that we do in this field is understood and documented. I think that this is both wrong and unhelpful, since there is much to learn, much to discover and much to invent. Amateur Radio isn't dead, it's full of life, full of things that are continuing to develop, evolve and grow. Let me give you an example. In radio there is a phenomenon called the "FM Capture Effect". Explaining how you experience it is simple. If you have two FM transmitters on the same frequency, and you're using an FM receiver, one of the FM transmitters will win, that is, you'll hear one and not the other. Unlike in AM and SSB transmissions, where you hear both at the same time, the FM Capture Effect causes the receiver to pick one over the other. As an aside, it's because of this effect that aviation and HF communication mostly prefer AM based communication. Imagine two pilots trying to talk to the tower at the same time, one is heard and the other not. Back to the magic. We can describe that this thing happens. We can show it happening, we can even measure the signal strength difference that causes it to happen, 0.17dB according to one document I read. We can use formulas to describe our FM signal, we can use simulations to emulate it, but in the end, the closest we can get to the how and why is: This happens, we know it happens, it happens under these circumstances, but precisely how, we're not sure. A thesis I read on the subject by Park Soon Sang at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, published in 1989, spends many pages saying all these things and finishes off with: "The simulation results establish that the low pass filtering portion of frequency demodulation accounts for the capture effect of FM receivers." and goes on to say: "It is recommended that the capture effect be verified using an operating experimental system in which system parameters can be controlled and accurately measured." Or in other words, we built a software simulator to learn about this phenomenon. This simulator suggests that the low pass filter causes this, but you really should make an actual set-up to test this. If I'm less vague, we simulated it, it looks right, but we're really only guessing, so test this in the real world. Now, before you get all huffy. I'm saying that a phenomenon that has existed since the first FM transmission in 1936 is still being explored and investigated and the jury is still out as to what precisely causes it and what the parameters are. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1973: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." -- by that definition, Amateur Radio is clearly magic. So, when you next scratch your head about what the future of our hobby has in store, the answer is almost certainly covered by the very same author: "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible." Amateur Radio, it's magic and there is more to discover. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Don't ever yell into a microphone and other neat things ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio This technology driven community of radio enthusiasts makes me laugh on occasion. Today I had to laugh when I realised that we spend an awful lot of time talking about antennas and radios and feed lines and impedance and propagation and electronics and a whole lot of subject in-between and around that. It stuck me that one conversation that we don't have, is the one about microphones. Specifically how to actually use one. I've been around hundreds of radio amateurs, seen them speak into their microphone, witnessed them standing at a lectern presenting their latest project, observed them attempting to rally the troops during a HAMfest by yelling into a microphone and heard them on-air. I came to the realisation that despite our familiarity with the technology, by enlarge, the amateurs I observed are no better than the general public when it comes to using a microphone. Actually, I think as a community we're worse, because we won't be told how to do it. So, I'm going to tell you. You can switch me off, or in the secrecy of your own shack, stick around and see if there is something to learn. I'm coming at this from a background in broadcasting. I've conducted some 1800 interviews in my time, have spoken in public, on-air and in myriad different environments, including large event venues and sports arenas. I won't say I've seen it all, but I've seen my fair share of how it's done, what it sounds like and what doesn't work. The very first thing to note is that yelling into a microphone will make it worse. Let me say that again. Don't ever yell into a microphone. The second thing to note is that you should keep the distance between your mouth and your microphone as static as possible. A good rule of thumb is to clench your fist and put it between your chin and the microphone. That's the distance that you should start with. Some microphones need you closer, others need you further away. Eating your microphone is only for very experienced operators in specific environments, since every thing your mouth does will be captured. A microphone is in essence a device that converts movement into electricity. This sounds obvious, but it means that waving the microphone around is also movement. The cable that's attached to the microphone moves, and makes sound. The desk on which the microphone is placed moves when you touch it, that's sound. Anything you can hear with your ears and much that you cannot, will be captured by the microphone. Not all microphones are equal. The ideal microphone converts all frequencies equally well, but this isn't actually possible, so, some frequencies are better captured than other frequencies. This means that your voice will not actually be captured in exactly the same way as it comes out of your mouth. Speaking of which. What you hear from a recording of your voice often sounds wrong. This is because the sound that's coming from inside your mouth is also travelling inside your head and your ears pick it up from the inside as well as from the outside. Listening to a recording of your voice doesn't echo inside your head. On an FM repeater, if your signal is captured by the repeater, the volume is not due to your antenna, it's due to your microphone. So make sure you set the microphone gain appropriately and when people tell you that you sound soft, fix the gain. Microphones will pick up breathing and the sounds your lips make when you smack them together and when you say the letter P as in PaPa. The best way to deal with this sound is to learn not to make it. In the mean time, you can speak across the microphone, rather than directly at it. This means that you should keep the same distance, but tilt the microphone slightly. Speaking into a lectern microphone, a radio microphone or a hand-held all follow exactly the same principles. If you get the opportunity to hear yourself via headphones while speaking into a microphone, use it to listen to what exactly is captured....
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The band is dead and there are no contacts to be made...
Foundations of Amateur Radio There is a curious phenomenon related to how we operate that is pervasive within our community. As an inexperienced ham, I would turn on my radio and tune around and hear nothing. I'd change bands and do it again. Over time I'd work my way through the bands I'm allowed on and find no activity. On rare occasions I'd venture into the wide unknown and see what other bands were doing, ones where I wasn't allowed to transmit due to my license restrictions, and find lots of people talking to each other, making noise and having fun. More often than not, this band of feverish activity was 20m. For a long time I ascribed magical properties to this 20m band. There was always propagation, people were always there and it seemed that if you wanted to make contacts, that was the place to be. Over time I participated in contests with other amateurs, operating a club station and finding myself on 20m making contacts. I began to believe that 20m was this amazing place where stuff was always happening. This seemed to be reinforced by other amateurs who would use as their sole reason for gaining extra responsibilities, access to the 20m band. Now before you start, 20m is special. It has some interesting properties which make contacts appear and vanish at short notice. Just like other bands with their different peculiarities, practice makes perfect. But, 20m isn't that special. It's not a band that is always open, or always closed, just like 15m isn't, nor is 10m, neither is 6m, 80m, or 160m or whatever band you prefer to operate on. No band is always open and no band is always closed. Guess how I know this? Whenever there is a contest, activity blooms all over the place, the bands are full of stations, making contacts, having fun and annoying those stations who hate contesters with vehemence, so, clearly there is something else going on. There is. It's you, and me, and everyone else. We're all listening. While listening is good, you also need people to talk, otherwise there is nothing to listen to. There are automated stations around using beacons and WSPR modes and all manner of cute software to determine if their station is being heard. And if you look at the maps, they clearly are being heard. So, as I've said before, go on air and make some noise. If you want to make contacts, you need to make noise. Your friends need to make noise. You need to setup regular contacts with friends somewhere on the planet and actually use the bands. Yes, having access to 20m is fun, but lamenting that is frankly a waste of time. Whatever band you're on, whatever you're doing, you need to make noise. Yes, of course there are variations in propagation throughout the day and the solar cycle affects how far and wide you'll be heard, and sun spots and solar flares affect the ionosphere as well, but it's not the only variable. Just because no-one is heard, doesn't mean that no-one is there. So, repeating myself, go on air and make some noise. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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How old is the mode you're using?
Foundations of Amateur Radio The thing I like about our community is that there is always something new brewing, someone is inventing something, making something or doing something. It amazes me that the level of ingenuity is boundless. During the week someone asked the question, "What's the difference between AM and FM?" and while answering that could incorporate hand waving, arrows and drawings, I came across a much simpler explanation, which simply says it all. Credit goes to redditor EmmetOT. Imagine replacing radio with light, this isn't a stretch, since it's part of the same spectrum. Replace a radio transmitter with a light bulb. AM is using a dimmer, changing the brightness, to send information. FM is changing the colour of the light to send information. I could stop right there, but there is so much more going on in our community. If you've been out of Amateur Radio for a while, and I know, this happens to the best of us, you'll be forgiven in thinking that nothing is the same as it was, while wondering if anything ever changes. Both these things are true and I think that's good. The first AM voice transmission was made in 1900, SSB experimentation began in 1915 and FM experiments were happening in the early 1930's. These three modes, AM, SSB and FM are still with us today. We've done other cool stuff since then, stereophonic and quadraphonic FM. We think of RTTY as a relative new kid on the block, but it has its origins in 1874 and the first on-air RTTY was heard in 1922. Without going into too much detail, other modes that we are beginning to think of as ancient are surprisingly new. PSK31 for example joined us in 1998, but Hellschreiber, is from the 1920's, MFSK comes from 1962 and Packet Radio hails from the 1970's. JT65 comes from 2003 and JT9 is from 2012. My point is that whatever the mode you're using, someone is extending it, modifying it, improving it or inventing something new. Your level of familiarity with a mode has little or nothing to do with the age of the mode. As is the case with everything in Amateur Radio, horses for courses. In your Amateur pursuits you'll come across those who will tell you that there is nothing new to be invented, that everything has already been thought of and that we are a hobby of old people harking back to the golden era of something or other. I'm here to tell you that nothing is further from the truth. Amateur Radio is a hobby of invention of people asking the question: "I wonder what happens if I do this...", often followed by a big bang and the magic smoke coming out. Don't let that deter you. Keep on with the experimentation, even if you've only been a member of this community for a minute and a half like me, you too can make a contribution. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Alternating Current and Direct Current are the same thing ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio When you use your trusty multi-meter to measure resistance across a 50 Ohm resistor, it shows 50 Ohm, but when you use it across a piece of 50 Ohm coax, you see either infinity, or 0. Similarly, when you measure across a folded-dipole, you see 0, not 300 Ohm. Does this mean that a 50 Ohm resistor is somehow different than a 50 Ohm piece of coax and why is the feed-point impedance of a folded dipole 300 Ohm, when your multi-meter clearly says it's 0? Does this mean that there are two types of Ohm? Today I'm going to explain why this is and what's going on. Yesterday I started reading up on the subject and every single explanation I came across went into deep ju-ju with scary maths, using complex and imaginary numbers. I did a bit of that in my dark past, but none of that is needed to understand what's happening. As you know, there is such a thing as Direct Current or DC - we use it with batteries and little power supplies, in simple circuits and all manner of day-to-day activities. There is another world that we as amateurs use, the world of Alternating Current or AC. In house-hold wiring we use 50 or 60 Hertz and different voltages depending on where on the globe we are. In radio terms we use it for our transmissions, on HF at several Mega Hertz and beyond. These two different worlds, the DC and AC world don't appear to have anything in common. Here's the kicker though, they are the same thing. Yup. DC and AC are the same thing. What? Yup. I'm not making this up. As you might recall, if you look at an AC voltage, it goes from plus to minus and back again. A 50 Hertz alternating current does this swap 50 times per second. When you're rag-chewing on 40m, or 7 MHz, it happens 7 million times a second. From plus to minus and back, 7 million times. Clearly there has to be some impact on this massive level of activity. Think of direct current as an alternating current with a frequency of 0 Hertz, that is, over time, DC doesn't change. So, DC is a short cut for saying AC at 0 Hertz. If you understand that explanation, then some really cool stuff starts to happen. Before I get to the cool stuff, you might recall Ohm's Law, commonly expressed as: "Given a current and a resistance, we can determine a voltage". Said in another way, the resistance of a circuit is related to the voltage and the current in the circuit. Now, in this simple form of Ohm's Law, the voltage doesn't change from plus to minus and back again. That is, over time, there is no change. Now if you start doing funky stuff with your voltage, like change it from plus to minus and back again, an additional type of resistance comes into play, called reactance. This reactance is the part that is affected by voltage change over time. So if you swap the voltage from plus to minus and back again a million times a second, the reactance has a big part to play. In short, there are two types of resistance, one that is independent of time, called resistance, and one that's dependent on time, called reactance. Both of these, resistance and reactance, happen within a circuit. If the voltage doesn't change over time, then the reactance part is zero and similarly there are circumstances where you can have a resistance of zero but have a reactance that's not - one example is a folded dipole. Now, if you combine the resistance and reactance, you get something called impedance. Now you have all the bits. Resistance is expressed in Ohm, Impedance is expressed in Ohm, and thus Reactance is also expressed in Ohm. If we look at our folded dipole with a feed-point impedance of 300 Ohm, you now know that this 300 Ohm comes from a resistance of 0 Ohm and a reactance of 300 Ohm at the resonant frequency, which is why your trusty multi-meter shows it as 0, since the voltage it uses to measure is alternating at 0 Hertz, which is not the resonant frequency of this antenna. Before I go, the rabbit hole goes deeper. Reactance itself is made up of...
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After the contest ... the debrief.
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I'm concluding my breakdown of the contest that I participated in recently as a mobile station. I planned to make my contacts on one band and I did that. Feedback indicated that there were other contacts to be had on other bands, but switching bands is a non trivial affair with my current set-up. I planned to have a common frequency that would be a local cluster of activity, except it never happened that way because others decided to do their own thing. This meant that my antenna was tuned for the top end of the band, rather than the more typical centre of activity. I expected to work several home stations and managed to do so with two, but that was much lower than I expected and planned for, so my overall score didn't reach the planned levels, even if it was triple last year's effort. I planned to drive a circuit in about 90 minutes, instead it took about three hours. Fortunately there were lots of mobile stations about which helped me much more than expected. I keep telling myself that I need to sort out a voice-keyer because each time my voice gives out about half way through the contest, but again I keep forgetting to make that happen. My laptop power worked pretty well, but the location of the device, sitting on the passenger seat and then during on air activity, parked at the side of the road, it was balanced on my knee. Not ideal and not comfortable. My phone worked really well as my live GPS map and the boundaries I'd drawn using Google My Maps really helped to show me where I was in relation to the boundaries for this contest. I'm a relatively new arrival into the Amateur community but I often forget that I've been contesting almost from day one. My first on air experience was a club station during a field day camp out where the activity centred around a little folding table with Amateurs crowded around it. On air I have lots of broadcast experience, which means that I'm experienced in multi-tasking, coordinating frequencies, logs, callsigns, navigation and strategic objectives. I forget that this is not true for others on air. I love contesting, seriously, I love it. This activity puts me right on the bleeding edge of my capability and it's exhilarating to explore the peaks and troughs of the activity. I used rope to prevent my heavy antenna from breaking my boot lip mount and was worried about strange looks I might get. The rope worked well, the mount did not suffer from the experience and I didn't get much in the way of strange looks. In fact, much less than when I'm parked up with my 12m squid pole. Food and water worked great, but I will add public toilets to my map for next year, since it's not fun having to hunt. Mind you, a petrol station is a good option when you're in a hurry. At the end of the day, I managed to triple my score, I achieved all my objectives and proved to myself that my strategy, which came about thanks to discussion with fellow contesters, was solid, workable and a better performer than last year. I'm not yet sure how I'll change what I did, perhaps more antennas, parked at places longer, working more bands at the time might be an improvement. Time will tell. I hope that this adventure made you look at your activities and gives you some ideas on what to try, what to investigate and things to look out for. Hopefully I'll hear you on air during the next contest. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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How to make contacts during a contest?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I'm going to look at the actual on-air activity of the contest. Previously I've talked about the preparation and planning, as well as the doing, in terms of mechanics, what to bring, where to put it and how to power it all. At the most basic level, a contest is a combination of two things, making and taking calls. It's an important point, so I'll say it again. A contest is two things, sitting on a frequency and call CQ and have other stations call you, and, it's also hunting up and down the dial finding other stations who are calling CQ. These two sides, being the instigator of the contact, and being the responder, are needed to make points. Even the most advanced contest station with multiple operators and transmitters will do both these things and when you're on your own you too need to do this. One reason for this is that in a contest others are doing the exact same thing. They're also swapping between both these activities to pick up extra points and multipliers. Another reason is propagation. Your station is unique. It has a unique radiation pattern, a unique location, a unique audience of stations that can hear you at any one time. Across the duration of the contest this will change as day turns into night and night back into day. If you're mobile, there is an additional variable, your location which will affect your audience every time you move. If those two reasons were not enough, here's one more. How do you know if the band your on is working or not? How do you know if there are others nearby, or on a completely different part of the band, or, if the band is open or closed, or if solar conditions have shifted and a band has been affected? For my contest I had a vertical antenna mounted on my car. I can use it to operate on the bands I'm allowed to use, 10m, 15m, 40m and 80m. For this contest, my go-to band was 40m. Local conditions dictate that when dusk arrives, the lower part, 7.0 to 7.150 is all but unusable due to heavy interference from non-amateur stations overseas, so I picked a spot near 7.190 and used that as my calling frequency. Of course, as was expected, not everyone got the memo that I'd be up at that end of the band, and the little flag I posted saying that this was my frequency was dutifully ignored by everyone. What I'm saying is that there is no such thing as "my calling frequency", just the place where you like to call and you have to manage this along the duration of the contest, since others will find your little hidey-hole and use it at the drop of a hat. And if you're QRP like me, they might even just start calling CQ right over the top of you and you'll find that you think you're making contacts with stations that are not actually talking to you. In other words, be flexible. As a rule, for myself, having been bitten by this many times, I don't QSY to another band if a station I've just worked asks to do so, since the aim for your contest is for you to make contacts, not for someone else to make them. That's not to say that if it's 3 o'clock in the morning and nothing much is happening this won't change. Again, flexibility is key. I tend to use both VFO A and VFO B on my radio. It's a quick way to swap between frequencies or bands and it allows you to both sit on a frequency, calling CQ and hunt up and down the band at the same time. If that doesn't make sense to you, this is how I do this. I set my calling frequency up on VFO A and copy that to VFO B. I call CQ a few times on VFO A, swap to VFO B, scan up or down a little way, find a station that I'd like to work and swap back to VFO A, call CQ a few more times, swap back to VFO B, hear the station finish their call and hear them call CQ. I respond and if they hear me, I make the contact. If not, I swap back to VFO A, call CQ and do it all again. This way I can be in one place calling CQ and pick up contacts at the same time. If you have multiple radios, even as a single operator, you can do...
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The logistics of being in a contest while mobile
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I'm going to talk about the doing of a contest. Previously I discussed the preparation and you can go back to that and have a listen online, search iTunes for my callsign, VK6FLAB. The contest I participated in was a 24 hour contest. It started at 2pm local time on a Saturday and ran the whole 24 hours. If I was sitting in a shack, I might have and in the past actually have, operated during most of that. Seeing that this time around I was planning to be mobile, I needed to get sleep in between driving from location to location. In my car I have a suction cup stuck to the front windscreen which holds the head of my radio. It's mostly within reach, but if I operate for a little while, extending my arm gets tiring, so if that's the case, I drop the steering wheel, push it forward and modify my seat position. A better solution would be to find a better location, but I've not managed that yet. I keep looking at other set-ups, but haven't found one that works for me. I'll let you know if I do. My logging is done on a computer. A net-book. It's small, light and pretty responsive. It's running Windows XP, never connects to the 'net and it works. I balance it on my knee when entering contacts, or have it on the passenger seat and tap into it that way. Also not ideal. I saw a series of photos where a fellow traveller had used a plastic sewer pipe, and bend, to push into the cup-holder of the centre console and mount their computer on that. I've not yet travelled to the hardware store, but I can see a future where that might occur. Power for the laptop comes from a 12V power supply. It's plugged into the cigarette lighter, set to the voltage of my computer and plugged in. It has a handy USB socket on the power supply that I use to keep my phone charged. That sits on another suction cup on the dashboard in a mount. It showed me where I was and where the boundaries of operation where. Every now and then I even used it as a phone. Speaking about power. I power my radio with a 12V battery that's sitting in the boot. At night, finding the right keys to press is a challenge. The interior light of the car is one option, but I find it makes too much light, draws too much attention and uses more power than I'm willing to use. Instead I use an LED headlamp. I was wearing it for a while, but a better solution turned out to be attaching it to the sun visor where it still is. In terms of feeding and watering, for water I had about six bottles of water lying in the passenger seat foot-well. For food, a small insulated bag with fruit, apples, pears and a banana. I stayed away from nuts, sugar and other traditional stay-awake foods, because I find that I over eat, get sleepy and become less productive. In between locations I'd turn the radio volume down, turn on some classical music and let my mind relax a little. I drove about 300km during the 24 hours. Operated from 2pm until about 10pm and from about 5am to 2pm, a total of 17 hours. I managed to have a sausage roll for breakfast, not recommended, a few cups of coffee in the morning - keeping my eyes peeled for a coffee place at 5am paid off at 7am. I wore comfortable shoes, a t-shirt and jeans. Next time I'll wear shorts or tracksuit pants. The belt really didn't work for me for that extended period of time sitting in a car. Next time I'll talk about the operation during the contest. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Training, Traumatic or Fun, you decide...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Training is a word that is steeped in tradition, it conjures up images of classrooms, teachers, chewing gum stuck to the bottom of your desk and being called upon to attend the front of the class to explain something based on the misapprehension that you did your homework. Fortunately this is a hobby and training is something you can do yourself, to yourself, by yourself at your own pace. Of course, you can choose to do it with others, but it's not required as such. We talk about being prepared for doing stuff, but what do we actually do to make that happen? I've said many times that I like to do contests. In fact, I'm preparing for one right now. This particular contest awards points for making a contact and doubles the points, a so-called multiplier, every time I work a different area. So, what does my training for this look like, what preparation have I done and what am I doing right now? My first step was to read the rules, the specifics of what is proscribed, what is permitted and what is counted and what isn't. This sets up the training ground, the framework under which I have to operate my station. My next step was to pull out a map and draw the boundaries of the areas that affected my score, showing those regions that I'd likely be in and likely make contact with. The crucial part for this was to see where the boundaries were, because it's likely that while driving around, having situational awareness will pay a good part of being successful. Then I looked at the band conditions. I set-up with my multi-band antenna, a multi-tap Outbacker, and set it up on the 4 HF bands that I'm allowed to operate on, 80m, 40m, 15m and 10m. I set out to make a single contact with each, based on another station a couple of kilometres up the road. We both have vertical antennas to increase our chance of success. Based on that I determined a few things. One, that this particular antenna and my car make for some pretty specific directionality on some bands. Two, that 10m and 15m were working close in, but not 20km away, that 80m sort of worked but that 40m was a winner. Based on this test I decided that 40m was going to be my frequency band for this contest. Then I went about getting tools together. I have a laptop for scoring and a power supply that connects to the car for the laptop. I've charged my radio battery, so it will run for a week on 5 Watts, got together pen and paper as a backup, found a USB charger for my phone and will shortly be packing fruit and water for while I'm on the road. Last night I fuelled up the car, ready for the contest, and this morning I dug out a few spare antennas in case one of my friends is able to come out and play on-air as well. I've looked at the map closely, did maths on how best to operate, added markers to my map where good operating positions might be found, likely they're completely rubbish, but going there is when I'll find that out. I've told others what I'm going to do, encouraged others to get on air and play and by the time I start I'll have had a healthy lunch, a hot shower and comfortable clothes to keep me on the road. I've packed a warm coat, and gone through the contest in my mind to see if I can think of other things that I might need. All this is only the pre-cursor to actually doing the contest. Call it Part 1. Part 2 is the contest and Part 3 is figuring out what worked and what didn't. I'll tell you about that next time we meet. Training, it can be fun, or it can be traumatic, you decide. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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How to get started ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I'm going to talk about getting started. In the past I've mentioned that it's a good idea to find a community, a club or a local mentor to get you going in this hobby, and that still stands. You really need to find some like-minded, available humans to share this experience with. That being said, there are some things that you can do on your lonesome. An often asked question is: "What radio should I buy?" The answer to that question can be long and involved, but it boils down to this: "What ever you can afford." That answer in and of itself isn't that helpful. Do you get a $40 cheap hand-held or a $4000 all-singing and dancing radio? My best answer to that is: "Buy your second radio first." What I mean is that if you spend your money on a $40 radio today, how long will you enjoy it and how long will it be until you spend your next bit of money and is that $40 investment a waste of money? I'm not making a value judgement here, the answer is still: "What ever you can afford." When I asked that question of my mentor, Hi Meg, she explained that her first radio was a hand-held radio and that she quickly settled on a Yaesu FT857d as her second radio. She went on to say that picking a brand is like choosing between Mac or PC, Ford vs. General Motors, vi vs. emacs, Debian vs. Red Hat, Tomato vs. Tomato. There are followers in each camp and nay-sayers in every other camp. I picked my radio based on whom I had around me for support, who was nearby for silly questions, advice on accessories, experience with settings and knowledge of costs, faults and other intangibles that I was completely unfamiliar with. Once you get into this hobby, you'll come across people who have technical reasons for picking a particular radio, or sentimental reasons, or financial ones, or what ever reason they come up with. When you get started, not much of that matters. If you have money to burn, then sure, you can by the top-of-the range radio, but if you're never going to use it, what's the point? Once you've picked your radio, other choices follow. What power supply do I need, how much space do I need, what kinds of connectors does it come with, has it got a built-in antenna, or do you need to erect one, does it have a tuner built-in, or do you need to get one, do you need programming software, a microphone, etc. etc. Each of these follows from the initial selection of your radio. What now? You have a radio, presumably an antenna of some sort and your radio is actually turned on and you can hear stuff. If you've come from a short-wave listening background, you'll know where everything is, have a familiarity with the bands and an idea of how things work. If you're new to this hobby, then these things are not so obvious. Things to mention are that each band is unique, that is, they all have their own characteristics. Some are always noisy, others are always quiet, some are active during the day, others only at night, some have stations all day long and others only for short periods. A lot of this depends on things outside your control. Propagation is a variable animal and depending on what our Sun is doing, propagation will change, sometimes substantially, as time goes by. Forecasts for the weather are getting better. The same is true for propagation forecasts. A forecast is just that, a prediction of the environment, but not a guarantee of conditions. There is no substitute for turning on your radio and having a listen. If you're in someone else's shack, have a listen on their equipment, use the opportunity to learn something about different set-ups. If you get the chance, operate on that station and see what happens. Getting started isn't a magical invisible unattainable thing, it's taking the first step on your journey into this hobby of Amateur Radio. Get to it already. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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A surprise might be just around the corner...
Foundations of Amateur Radio This crazy hobby keeps sending curve balls to me. You've heard me talk in the past about missed opportunities. There are times when you look back and ask yourself: "What was I thinking?" Over the past, oh boy, I just looked it up, two years, I have been struggling with an antenna system that I could use while mobile. I took delivery of 4 single band antennas, one for 80m, one for 40m, 15m and one for 10m. I also purchased a boot-lip mount and some other things like coax switches and adapters. I've been attempting to make these antennas work with very, very limited success. They work just fine, they tune up as expected, show the SWR curve that the manufacturer has helpfully printed on a little card that comes with each antenna and generally are sturdy, compact and wonderful, but only if they're installed on something other than my car. In desperation a year ago I purchased a tuner for my radio, so at least I can trick it into transmitting. I have made very few contacts, added one or two DX countries in the past year and really got no-where. So, during the week I recalled that one of the things I purchased was an adapter. It's got a PL-259 socket on one end and a CB-thread on the other. I dug it out, found the thread that goes into the hole and attempted to attach it to the CB antenna I was given within a month of becoming an Amateur. It had been modified to work on 10m and most of my DX contacts had been with that antenna. So, I attempted to attach the adapter and it doesn't fit. So I look around my shed and notice another antenna that I was given at the same time that never worked, it's a multi-tap antenna. Picture an antenna that is a big stick, has wire would around its entire length with points where you can attach a lead to bypass some of the antenna. You plug the lead into the bottom connector, then pick the band you want to work on, put the other end of the lead into the right tapping point and off you go. It came with a big spring mount, was intended to be bolted to a bull-bar, but using a family sedan, makes attaching this contraption pretty hopeless. It'd tested it where I could, measured it, tested more, made a new wander lead with a solid connector and nothing I did made it work. It turns out that the thread in my adapter fits properly into the base of this multi-tap antenna. I took it out into a local park, put the antenna with the lead on 40m, bolted it to my boot-lip mount, halfway pulled out the tuning end, a little metal spike that you can use to adjust the length of the antenna and turned on my radio. Guess what happened next? Nothing, that's what happened. I was stunned, into silence, imagine that, me silent. It worked. No adjustments, no trimming, no fixes, nothing. Just plugged it in and it worked. Propagation was pretty poor, so no contacts as such, but oh my. The point of all this is that when you least expect it, a surprise might come your way. Look at the assumptions you've made in your shack, think of the things you've tried and failed to achieve and use that to take a fresh look at what you have. Hopefully your delight will be just as surprising as mine was. I'll be back on air a lot more, who know's I might even get the opportunity to have a chat with you. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Harmonics and calling CQ
Foundations of Amateur Radio Have you ever had your radio on, listening around, say on 40m and heard the following: "CQ, CQ 40m, this is VK6FLAB, calling CQ 40, CQ 40m, calling CQ" Apart from the fact that the station calling seems pretty desperate for a contact, you're tuned to 40m, why on earth would you actually mention that, what's the point of telling me what band you're calling on, when clearly I'm hearing you on that band? The answer to this question is in harmonics. At the heart of every radio is an oscillator, set to some or other frequency that forms the basis of all that happens around it. In order to arrive at different frequencies, we add and subtract, double and halve frequencies, all combining to arrive at the various frequencies and bands we use. I'll use some fictitious numbers here to give you an idea of what's happening. Imagine that you have a 3.5 MHz oscillator. With it you can double it to 7 MHz, double that to 14 MHz, double it again to 28 MHz, that's 80m, 40m, 20m and 10m, just by using doubling. You could use the same oscillator and a doubler with a frequency tripler to get 21 MHz and so on. A side-effect of doubling and tripling frequencies is that this process isn't perfect or linear. This in turn means that some of those imperfections also get doubled and tripled. These imperfections are called spurious emissions and we reduce them as much as possible; in fact it's required by legislation to be below a certain level below the wanted emission. As technology improves, these spurious emission standards evolve. The US FCC as an example says that for radios built before January 1, 1978 they're exempt, radios until 2003 must be 30 dB below the wanted emission and current radios must be 43 dB below. What this means is that in effect your radio is transmitting on multiple frequencies at the same time, but filtering prevents most of this from coming out. Now, imagine that you have a series of dipoles connected to your radio, one for 160m, one for 80m, one for 40m, one for 10m, etc. Imagine that your radio was built before January 1, 1978 and you're calling CQ. The harmonics are being generated, and because you've got an antenna connected that can transmit those harmonics, they go out into the wide blue world outside. It's entirely possible that someone listening on 20m, 15m or 10m is hearing you calling on 40m through your spurious emissions at some or other harmonic. So, next time you hear a station calling CQ 40m, they're either rusted on die-hard amateurs on a modern radio, or they are using a so-called boat anchor, having fun on air. Either way, it's a great idea to say hello while you have the opportunity. Perhaps even use the experience as an excuse to learn more about their station, or even check out their harmonics and let them know if you can hear them. Propagation be damned. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Lower and Upper Side Band, why is it so?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today we enjoy radio using all manner of different so-called modes. The ones that most people are familiar with are FM and AM. In fact digital radio DAB+ is another example of a mode. In Amateur Radio we have a few more to play with, Single Side Band, or SSB, countless other digital modes, CW, or Carrier Wave are all different approaches to getting information from one place to another. If you have a radio that uses SSB, you'll soon notice that there are two versions of SSB, something called LSB and something called USB, or Lower and Upper Side band. If you tune around the bands you'll soon notice that some stations are using Lower Side Band and others are using Upper Side Band and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. Actually, there is a method to the madness. First of all, commercial and military HF radio all use Upper Side Band all the time. Radio Amateurs are a bit more traditional and we have the following basic convention. For voice signals on frequencies lower than 10 MHz, we use Lower Side Band, and for signals above 10 MHz we use Upper Side Band. There are exceptions to this. RTTY, one of the digital modes uses Lower Side Band regardless of frequency and all the other digital modes use Upper Side Band. Confused yet? Here's another way to think of it. Everyone uses Upper Side Band, except for RTTY and Voice below 10 MHz on Amateur Radio. Why are we doing this cookey thing to ourselves in Amateur Radio? First thing to note is that it's not random, we didn't just wake up one morning with this idea and said, lets do that. Side Band was first figured out mathematically in 1914. A year later it was made into reality by John Carson who used it to carry more long distance telephone calls across the AT&T phone system. There were on-air experiments and in 1933 the ARRL board instructed the technical staff of QST magazine to investigate the feasibility of single side band carrier-less phone transmission on amateur frequencies. There is lots to read about this in the January 2003 edition of QST magazine, if you're interested, it's a fascinating read. From an engineering perspective, radios built during the birth of Side Band, or Single Side Band Suppressed Carrier, to give its full name, used different methods to create a side band signal. One method was to filter out the part of the side band you didn't want, the other was to use phasing to add or subtract two signals and create a side band signal. Creating a filter was hard, creating a phase difference was much simpler to achieve. Now, one of the effects of using this method of making a side band signal was that you had a place where the signals would add and another where they would subtract. Where was this place you ask? One guess. 10 MHz anyone? So, for these radios built during the birth of side band, Upper and Lower Side Band came as a side-effect of creating a simple and reliable system to make the signal. Today we have alternatives which make this 10 MHz magic spot pretty much obsolete, but there are still 1951 Collins 75A-1 radios on air today and we like to talk to each other, so why fix something that isn't broken? That's why we use Upper and Lower Side Band. Remember, everything uses Upper Side Band, except RTTY and Amateur Radio phone below 10 MHz. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Logging software ... what to choose?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I'm going to talk about housekeeping, that is, the things you should be doing while you're doing the things you like doing, like making noise on air. The topic of Logging is one that continues to attract comment, suggestion, frustration and on occasion ridicule. Let me start with the fact that the very first contact that I made was not logged. I can tell you exactly which day it was, Sunday, April 17. I can tell you where I was, Stirk Park in Kalamunda in Western Australia. I can tell you that the other station was a Japanese station, but that's all I can tell you. I don't know the time, the band, likely 10m or 15m, I couldn't tell you their callsign, even though I'm pretty sure that I wrote it on a random piece of paper at the time. It simply hadn't occurred to me that I should actually log that contact, or that I'd ever think back to that day and wonder whom I spoke with. So, if you've not yet been on-air, get your logging sorted out now. It doesn't have to be fancy, it can be your diary, a notebook, a binder, or a phone, tablet or computer with appropriate software, just actually start logging. Do it today. That out of the way, getting the entries stored somewhere, you'll soon notice that there are tools you love and tools you despise and that over time this changes. It also changes for different activities. If you're on the top of a summit or in a national park, you might just want a small notepad to log your contacts, but if you're in the middle of a contest you might just want to not have to worry about logging everything manually, you might just want to punch in the other station's callsign and their exchange. The point is that for every amateur activity there are different aspects of logging. If you're chasing island activations you'll need a spot for the IOTA number, but if you're actually on the island, others are chasing you, then a good contest log is likely all you'll need. So, I just said the magic word, good. What is a good log, what does it look like, which software should you look at? Well, as in everything in life, that depends. You're likely to change logging software across your amateur activities, either because you have come to dislike the one you're using, or because it no longer works on the current version of your computer, or any number of other reasons. When you're picking software, you should as the very first priority discard all logging software that does not allow you to export the log. If you cannot export, you're locked in and your data is very possibly lost at some point in the future, so only use logging software, if you're using software, that does an export. Now I did mention that you don't need to use software. Paper is perfectly fine, just a little harder to use if you want to check back and see when you worked a station more than once. It's also hard to use, actually, impossible to use, if you want to use Logbook Of The World, eQSL, clublog or any number of online contact verification tools. If you're looking to log during a contest, figure out if the contest is actually supported by the software, this will help you reduce the number of contacts you make that are invalid. For example, a contest might specify that you can only work a station every two hours. Relying on memory is not a good plan. Using a computer to do that is much more productive and reduces the number of contacts that are going to be tossed out by the contest manager - not to mention that some contests apply penalties if you log an invalid contact. A log that requires you to type in the frequency once is fine, but not if you need to type it in each time. If you're doing that on your phone, it'll get very tired very quickly. If your logging software won't work without an Internet connection and you're away from the net while being set-up as a portable station, you'll have all manner of issues, so consider that. So, what do I use? For most of my contest activity, at the...
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What can you say on-air?
Foundations of Amateur Radio There are things to say and things not to say as a radio amateur. Let's start with swearing on-air. Each jurisdiction is different and changing. The Australian Radiocommunications License Conditions Determination, or LCD has nothing to say about content. It's all about bandwidth, frequency and modes. The rules in the USA discuss "obscene or indecent words or language", but there is no definition of what that might mean. A word in one country is meaningless, where in another it's completely unacceptable. Our station signals travel around the globe, so it's prudent to moderate your language and to refrain from creating a situation where offence might occur. Of course, there are those who take this to the n'th degree. There is a perception that you cannot use the words K-Mart or Target on air, instead referring to these locations by some euphemism. There is nothing in the rules saying that you are prohibited from stating that you purchased a tube of SWR grease for $1.49 from Target, but if you're using the bands to tell your fellow amateurs that you're offering a two-for-one deal on your pork chops because you're a butcher during the day, that's considered an advertisement and is prohibited. There is no prohibition on language about sex, religion or politics, but that doesn't make them good topics of general conversation. That doesn't mean that you are not allowed to discuss them on-air with a mate, it means that you should really think about it if you're raising this as a topic in a net. Keep remembering that there are people from all walks of life, across the globe, who can hear you. There is a funny clause in the Australian LCD, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it also exists in some form in other jurisdictions. Here, it states that the licensee must not transmit any form of entertainment. In Australia this is explained as not permitting music, but that is not actually a word that occurs in the conditions. It does occur in the USA and no doubt there are variations within other jurisdictions. This "entertainment" clause is about broadcasting. There is an attempt to distinguish between commercial on-air use, that of a broadcaster, and amateur use, that of a licensed amateur. The way it's worded in Australia is funny though. Am I entertaining you right now? Are you listening to this on-air? Am I currently in breach of the Australian licence conditions, or is the station that is transmitting my voice? To put your mind at ease, this is covered under another section, the licensee must use an amateur station solely for the purpose of transmitting news and information services related to the operation of amateur stations. The two clauses that I just mentioned, the entertainment one and the news and information one, are all part of the same section, so you need to read the whole bit to understand what's going on. Of course that won't stop complaints or other interpretations, but so-far, that's all we have. While we're on the point of describing what's proscribed and what's not. The Australian conditions say nothing about how to sign if you're operating portable. There is no rule that says that you have to. There is a document called "Amateur operating procedures" that states that the "information, about the operating procedures for the amateur service, can help prospective amateur operators studying for amateur exams". It suggests that you use the locality when you're saying your callsign and if you're using CW, it suggests a stroke and a number. This is why we have this proliferation of different ways of communicating this information. Stroke mobile, Stroke portable, Stroke QRP, Stroke VK6 they're all made up. None of them have any official status. Your callsign is just that, your callsign. That's not to say that it's not helpful to add that you're portable, mobile, on a bicycle or standing in the ocean, but it's not part of your station identification. There used to be a special...
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QRP - When you care to send the very least!
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I'm going to talk about QRP, a term that's used in various different environments and one that I've used in the past. So, let's start at the beginning. QRP is a three letter code, part of the so-called Q-codes, that can either be a question or an answer. It's used in Morse communications to either ask "Shall I decrease transmitter power?" or to answer "Yes, decrease your transmitter power." It was perfectly valid for a kilowatt station to ask: "QRP?" and for another kilowatt station to answer: "QRP". Language changes over time, meanings get inverted, changed, adopted and transformed. The three letter combination, Q-R-P, is no different. Today in Amateur Radio, the three letters are more like a word, rather than a code and the meaning has changed to indicate that a station is running low power or as an indication to others that they're likely to be a weaker signal that requires a little more effort to pull out of the noise than any other station. As you might know, propagation is a fickle friend. There are days when you cannot talk to the station up the road and other days when you can hear a low power station clear across the globe and everything in between. The assumption that a QRP station is always hard to hear is not set in stone and often is quite incorrect. That's not to say that people think it's low, they hear QRP and think: "Hard work". It's a bit like fishing for trout. Some days are good, other days are just wet. Another aspect of the concept of QRP is the amount of power. The definitions differ. There are some that say that any station using 10 Watts or less is considered QRP. Others set the bar differently at 5 Watts. The ARRL defines it at 10 Watts or less for SSB and 5 Watts or less for CW or Digital. The WIA website uses a generic 5 Watts on their Low Power Radio page and different contests have different definitions of QRP. It's clear that there is no single definition of what constitutes QRP, just that it's low power. For me, I use 5 Watts and call myself a QRP station. Should you tell the other station that you're QRP? Should you include /QRP in your callsign and say something like, this is VK6FLAB/QRP. It depends. There are times when my statement of QRP got me through a pile-up and other times when some smart calling didn't require me to mention that I was only using 5 Watts. I've noted in exchanges that I'm using 5 Watts and had positive responses. There was a time when I signed specifically with VK6FLAB/QRP, but it causes all manner of grief with confirmation of your contact, since some stations will log the /QRP and others won't, since it's not an official callsign suffix. So, QRP is a wonderful aspect of our hobby, it teaches you to learn about propagation, to get your antennas sorted out, to pick your times and to learn better operating procedures. I find it immensely satisfying to make a contact with my 5 Watts and there are times I wished my radio would go even lower than 5 Watts. I know of amateurs who have worked across the globe, that is, the opposite side of the world, the furthest they can get with just a milliwatt SSB, so I know that while my contact from VK6 Western Australia to CO, Cuba with 5 Watts was proof that it all works, I know that there is more to explore. QRP - When you care to send the very least! I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Coax impedence, 50 Ohm and 75 Ohm, why is it so?
Foundations of Amateur Radio There is a recurring question that never seems to get a straight answer. Why are we using 50 Ohm impedance and not 75 Ohm? The more people you ask, the more answers you get. There'll be commentary about standing waves, SWR, loss, incompatibility, soldering, cost, velocity factor, diameter, susceptibility to noise and the list goes on and grows, the more people you ask, the longer the list. Of course as time goes by, people remember stories told to them, guess, or even, how to say this, make stuff up. To steal a phrase: "Why is it so?" In the 1930's, when most of us were not even the apple in the eye of their parents - let alone their grand parents - coaxial cable was being developed for kilowatt radio transmitters. There are two aspects to consider, the amount of loss against length and the ability of the coax to handle power. Without going into the maths, there's plenty of that online, the lowest loss for air-dielectric cable is 77 Ohms. If we look at the peak power handling, that occurs at 30 Ohms, that is, at 77 Ohms, coax is best at getting signal across the cable with the lowest amount of loss and at 30 Ohms, coax is best at dealing with high power. Clearly a compromise is needed. So, the mean between 77 Ohm and 30 Ohm is 53.5 Ohm and the geometric mean is 48 Ohm, so, 50 Ohm is a compromise between power handling and signal loss, for air dielectric. So, obviously, 75 Ohm is used for TV reception and not for transmission. Except it ain't so. In 1938, Roy Plunkett invented PTFE or Teflon. This material wasn't around when 50 Ohm was decided on. If you remember, coax consists of a few parts, the centre and the shield, each conductors that we use to move our signal around and something in between, the dielectric, which stops the two conductors touching, with a cover over the top of that for good measure to protect against shorting and damage. The dielectric can be an air gap, or some form of plastic like PTFE. Electrically, the dielectric constant for Air is 1, for foam PTFE it's 1.43 and for solid PTFE it's 2.2. Turns out that this makes quite the difference. Our lowest loss coax, is 77 Ohm for coax with an air dielectric, but drops to 64 Ohms with foam and 52 Ohm with solid PTFE. So, rather serendipitously, 50 Ohm was a grand choice, good power handling capability and low loss with a solid PTFE core. Now, why are we using 75 Ohm for TV? One suggestion is that it's another compromise between low loss and cable flexibility. What does all this mean for you? In a nut-shell, 75 Ohm coax is one type of compromise, 50 Ohm coax is another. You can use either, but they won't be the same and won't react the same. Calculations made for one, will not apply to the other and loss and power handling will be different. This means that your roll of cheap Quad Shield RG6 is perfectly fine for some aspects of our hobby and not for others. Here's an interesting tid-bit to tide you over until next we meet. If we compare RG58, common in Amateur Radio to RG6, common in TV, the losses are quite different. For 100m of coax, at different frequencies, these start to add up. At 1 MHz, the difference in loss is .6 of a dB, at 10 MHz, it's 2.2 dB and at 145 MHz, it's 10.7 dB. To be clear, the loss for RG6 is lower across the board. This really means that you shouldn't be afraid to experiment. There is nothing particularly special about the different types of coax and each choice has it's advantages and dis-advantages. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Q-codes in voice
Foundations of Amateur Radio This week I'm going to have a look at something called a Q-code. Last week I talked about a few aspects of operating. One of the inventions associated with human speech is the short-cut, a way to quickly say something rather than use the whole story. Before Amateur Radio this started on the telegraph with shortcuts called Q-codes. Think a three letter combination, starting with Q, followed by two letters. QTH, QSL, QRZ, QLF are examples. Language, just like Amateur Radio is an evolving feast. You'll find people writing articles about the abuse of Q-codes in speech going back to the early days of voice operation. The Q-code started with Morse Code as a way to quickly say something without needing to key the whole thing. This has flowed over into voice. You'll hear people use Morse-Code-isms in day to day language, 73, QSL, QTH and others are all examples of shortcuts that have no actual place in speech, but none the less have taken hold. Having said that, of course there is difference of opinion how you should conduct yourself. I know that there are things I hear on air that make me wince, and I'm sure that I've said things that make others shake their head. So, here's my take on how it should be done and feel free to do the same, or ignore me altogether. There is no such thing as "QRZ the frequency?". Nobody is calling the frequency. QRZ is specifically for the purpose of asking: "Who is calling me?" I know that there are some who are sharpening their pitchforks about now with all manner of comment, so let me be clear. I know, there are people who use QRZ in a pile-up. They've been calling CQ, had lots of replies, work a station and then after the contact say: QRZ?, with the meaning: "I'm done with the contact and I'm ready for another." This in my opinion is particularly poor operating, since it means that you're too lazy to say your callsign, disrespectful of all the stations calling you, arrogant enough to assume that everyone knows which station you are and oblivious to the notion that propagation is ever changing with new stations dropping in and out all the time. Instead of saying QRZ after such a contact, you're much better off saying your callsign instead. If you're in doubt, listen to some actually experienced contesters or DX operators and then you can you can fire off your feedback. I've been told that I have a habit of overusing QSL, but it means: "Transmission received and understood." and in communications there cannot be too much of that. I use it in day to day on-air language, use it in email and SMS and when I'm proficient in Morse, no doubt I'll use it there too. There are those that say that Hi-Hi, should not be used in voice, in Morse it's .... .. .... .., which sounds a little like someone laughing, which is where it comes from. Personally I think it's cute that you say Hi-Hi, even if someone who's not an Amateur doesn't share the joke. As a stick in the mud, I dislike 73's. If you're going to abuse a code, then at least use the correct one. It's nice in Morse, --... ...--, symmetric, the end of a contact, all fine. But there's not more than one of them and we're not sending off the number 3, seven times, so drop the 's'. I've been using language associated with broadcasting for a long time and I confess to wincing when I hear "Car-ah-be-an", rather than "Ca-rib-be-an", or "ad-ver-tise-ment" vs. "ad-ver-tis-ment" - no doubt some of my pronouncements will make you wince and some will find you agreeing. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Operating Procedures
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today we're going to look at operating procedures, that is, what to say, when to say it and when not to say it. Amateur Radio being over a century old has lots of traditions and lots of quirky exceptions to rules, but you'll learn those as you go on air and make mistakes, and assume that you'll make those, probably regularly and every now and then someone will gently correct you, or you'll get shouted at, either way you'll get feedback. It's generally a better idea to figure out what's going on before you even open your mouth, so lets look at some things that really need to be second nature. Your callsign is always last. Always! That way the other station knows who you are, every time. I realise that you might not think that this is important, but just imagine that you've been inconsistent with this across your activities and one day you're in an emergency. Now it's crucial to know who is who. If you always do it the same, always your callsign last, then you'll do that in an emergency too. That out of the way, there are other aspects to operating that you need to take into account. You should always listen on the frequency that you're intending to operate. The longer the better. The reason I say that is because you may not hear both sides, or even two out of three, or more sides of the conversation. If there is a group talking, you may only hear one station who is happily chatting with others. After listening, you should say: "Is this frequency in use?" and listen some more. After about a minute, ask again, adding your callsign: "Is this frequency in use, VK6FLAB". If you still hear nothing, you can say: "Nothing heard" and start your transmission on the frequency. While you're operating remember that band conditions change and that you might find yourself all of a sudden among other stations that were not there earlier. They were, but you didn't hear them and you might actually find that they could hear you all along, so be prepared to make some new friends or make peace. There are idiots on air. You'll find net controllers who all of a sudden turn up on the frequency that you've been operating on and demand that you QSY. You can argue the point, or you can take the high road and leave the frequency to those who think they own the air. No mileage to be made from yelling at each other, no benefit and you'll end up looking like the problem, even though no single station owns any frequency. Similarly you'll find stations who have particular perspectives on how stations should operate and they'll go out of their way to tell you off. Pay no attention, unless they are actually going to make a formal complaint to your regulator, their feedback is just that, feedback. If you hear a couple of stations talking to each other and there's a few stations you know, you can drop your callsign in between the gap between overs and if they're inclined, a station will acknowledge you and let you in. This in turn implies a gap between overs. Sometimes that gap doesn't exist. If it's urgent, you can try your callsign and understand that it may clash with another station, but don't force it and if you're in a group, leave a gap after the previous station hands over to you. If you hear two stations discussing a medical issue, family affairs or other topics that are not generic, listen, but don't but in. When they're done and said goodbye, you can try your callsign and see if they respond, but don't expect it. Next week I'll take a look at Q-codes. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Lucky Lightning Escape
Foundations of Amateur Radio In the past I've talked about our hobby and lightning. I've done it on more than one occasion, talked about cows and lightning strikes, about earth bonding and the dangers associated with lightning that's not directly overhead, but close enough to matter. On the weekend I learned the difference between saying something and seeing something. A group of Amateurs, went out camping, about two hours from anywhere in the middle of the bush to participate in an annual field day. We'd set-up our various overnight shelters, erected two marquees and proceeded to construct our portable shack. We were there for two nights. On the first night, the heavens opened up and the rain poured down, soaking the ground good and proper. We were lucky, our camp was at the top of a hill and drainage was great. At one point in the middle of the night I was standing outside in the rain, getting wet while attending to some ablutions - an unforgettable experience, but I digress. The next day the camp was in full swing. We were on air and operating, making contacts, despite the poor levels of propagation. We'd erected an 80m dipole, 40m of wire in the air, a 2m vertical, a G5RV antenna and some other wire antennas. Each of these had a piece of coax coming into the marquee and strung along the roof made their way to the appropriate radio. At that point the sky turned grey and thunder was heard. It was still dry, no actual activity overhead, or even within anything that could be considered nearby. As a precaution we disconnected our coax and settled down to wait for the impending storm. It never came. Other amateurs and house-holders were not so lucky, experiencing flooding and damage that was described as epic. Meanwhile back at our portable shack, we decided that it would be smart to separate power and coax a little. We started by pulling back the coax and moving it back into the roof space of the marquee. At one point, one of our team had his hand on the metal marquee frame and pulled at the coax connector that was feeding the 80m dipole. The next moment a crack was heard, he jumped. He's experienced a significant discharge between his hand and the coax. Remember, it's not raining, there's a grey sky and thunder can be heard in the distance. Looking back, I still cannot believe that between us, five Amateurs with a combined experience level of about 90 years between us, moving coax around while there was lightning in the air. What were we thinking? We were very lucky last weekend. It could have been much, much worse. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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The CAT interface
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today's Amateur Radio is less like the valve or transistor based radio and more like a computer. So much so that most radios today have a mechanism to connect the radio to a computer. This mechanism is called a Computer Aided Tuning interface, or CAT interface. It's a mechanism that's used to allow two way control information to be shared between the radio and a computer. This interaction is a serial connection, generally something called RS232. This is a standard that was developed in 1962 and it specifies things like timing, voltages and other attributes. The electronics from that era don't look much like the ones of today and most of the challenges with getting this stuff to work is related directly to these differences. It should come as no surprise that each manufacturer has their own take on what this whole contraption looks like and most of this technology is not directly compatible across radios. So, let's imagine that you've got a radio and a computer and they're physically connected to each other using a CAT interface of some description. We then need to make sure that things like the speed of both ends is the same, that is, the BAUD rate is the same. Also we need to check that the number of bits, stop bits and parity are also correct. If this sounds a little like 1980's modem talk, you'd be correct. The radio is presenting itself to the computer as a serial device, just like a dial-up modem does. If you've not seen this, just think of it as if the numbers at both ends need to match. Often the radio will have a standard setting, which you should use as a starting point. Now, I'm going to skip over things like IRQs and port addresses, not because it's simple, but because it might work out of the box, or it might cause you to lose hair. If it's the latter, you're going to need to do some IT support and this is about radios and not about computers. I'm also going to gloss over the problem that most modern computers don't have an actual serial port any more, most have something called USB which requires an adapter and software for the adapter, another potential minefield to traverse. Now comes the bit where it all works, right? Nope. Not yet. Next you need to have software that knows how to talk to your radio. It may be programming software, specifically to configure your radio, or it may be generic logging software that reads what mode and frequency you're on and puts that in your log, or it may be something that knows how to correct the frequency of your radio to deal with the Doppler effect of an overflying satellite. In each case, you'll need to tell your software several things. The most basic one of those is the port number. That is, of all of the serial ports on your computer, which one is connected to your radio? Seeing that all Amateur Radio manufacturers agree on everything, all actual control codes and responses are the same across all radios. Oh wait, nope, that's not true. They're not even the same across the same brand, so you'll also need to tell your software which actual radio you're using, which is the perfect opportunity to learn that your shiny new radio doesn't yet exist within the software. So, when you start looking at the CAT interface, you now know that this is a thing that's going to require some homework and planning. To make digital modes work, you need an audio interface to go with the CAT interface, which a whole different set of fun and games, including ground loops, impedance matching, levels, feedback and distortion. Now, if you thought that you and I took a lovely walk through the deep arcane world of serial computer interfaces, wrap your head around this. When we use the current crop of software defined radios, we replicate all of this, both CAT and audio interfaces with virtual versions of cables, BAUD rates and port numbers. Suffice to say, I don't have words. I should add that all of what I've said is just so you get an idea that there is...
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Bandplans and Edges
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I'm going to talk about operating procedures. Before groan and tune out, stay with me for a moment, this is important for all amateurs, even you. We as amateurs have a range of bands allocated to us. These bands cover a whole chunk of spectrum that we in many cases share with other users. They might either share the same band with us, or the other way around, we with them. Our bands might be right next to theirs or overlap in some part. To make things more interesting, these bands are unfortunately not uniform across the world. For example, in Australia part of IARU Region 3, the 40m band runs from 7.0 to 7.3 MHz. In Region 2, it's the same, but in Region 1, it only covers 7.0 to 7.2 MHz. If you look at the 80m band it's worse: Region 1 uses 3.5 to 3.8 MHz, Region 2 uses 3.5 to 4 MHz, Region 3 uses 3.5 to 3.9 MHz, but in Australia we can only use 3.5 to 3.7 and 3.776 to 3.8 MHz and that last little bit, the DX window, only if you hold an Advanced License. This can have profound implications for your operation on air. If you hear a station, clearly an amateur, callsign, working a pile-up and doing everything right, you may not actually be allowed to work them, even if you're privileged on the band you're listening on. Things get tricky near the edges of the bands. If you're operating near an edge, you are not allowed to have your signal stray across the band edge, so if you're using an SSB signal, the frequency shown on your radio is not where the edge of your transmission is, the radio is showing where the carrier is, the side-band signal depending on the type, can be another 2.5 to 6 KHz up or down. So, that's simple right. If you're using a band that uses Lower Side Band, say 80m, you can slide on up to the upper band-edge and start operating right? Uhm. No. Couple of things. The other side of the side-band doesn't vanish, it's reduced. Depending on the quality of the radio, the reduction is better or worse. Using an amplifier makes this problem bigger. Some radios have good filters on both transmit and receive which changes the picture again. I've not even talked about spurious emissions, harmonics and other artefacts which muddle this picture even further. The take-away for this is to make sure you know where the band edges are for your station and to make sure that you know what the performance of your actual radio is and where it transmits. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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What's in a Repeater?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I'm going to talk about repeaters. These invisible services that sit on a particular frequency and do magic things to your signal. First of all, the best way to think of a repeater is to think of it as two radios. One is the receiver, the other the transmitter. The way it works is that the receiver hears your signal and sends that audio to the transmitter which sends it out over the air. For this to work, there need to be two frequencies in use, the one that you're transmitting on and the one that the repeater is transmitting on. From this simple idea, many different things flow. There is no rule that states that the receiver and the transmitter need to be in the same place, let alone on the same band; if they're on different bands, it's called a cross-band repeater. If the receiver and the transmitter are on the same band, the system needs to deal with the fact that a strong signal is being transmitted by the repeater right next to where the receiver is. If you're not careful, the transmitter will overwhelm or de-sense the receiver, making it harder to get your signal into the repeater. Several techniques are used, a contraption called a cavity filter is set-up to specifically let either the receive frequency through, or to block all frequencies except the transmit frequency. Some combine both of these techniques to make the repeater hear weak stations better. If the receiver and transmitter are on the same band, the difference between the two frequencies in use is called the offset. It varies per band. On 2 meters, the offset is normally 600 kHz, but it varies, on 70cm the offset is 5 MHz, but on 10m, the offset is 100 kHz. So different bands use different configurations and of course each of these is subject to local variation. There may be local interference on the standard offset, so it may be varied. There are some other things going on with repeaters. You can have a repeater that receives and transmits on the same frequency, it's called a parrot repeater and it sits there waiting for you to transmit, stores the incoming audio for a set period and then when you stop transmitting, it sends out the audio on the same frequency. This is useful to see how you sound on-air. Other techniques include adding computers to create IRLP, Echolink and AllStar Link. Essentially the receiver is connected to a computer which sends the audio across the Internet to another computer which in turn sends out the audio to another transmitter. After you stop transmitting, the chain is reversed and the other station can talk to you via a reverse path. There are also specialised repeaters that can listen in one mode, like FM and transmit in another, like AM, or SSB. This allows a 2m user to use HF from their FM hand-held radio. If all that's not enough, there are other things possible with repeaters. You can use a special tone to identify to the receiver that your signal is a valid audio signal. This is used in environments where noisy local signals often trigger the repeater, resulting in ongoing kerplunking of the transmitter. Next time you key up your local repeater, have a think about what's happening when you key-up your radio and say thanks to the owner of the repeater who spent time and effort, not to mention money, to make this invisible friend on the air work for you. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Experimentation is about failure ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio There is an interesting phenomenon that I've begun to notice and now that I've seen it, it's hard to un-see. Think of it as the equivalent of the little dot in the top right corner of the screen that signifies the end of the reel to a movie projectionist. Once you've seen it, you can't miss it ever again. If you haven't, sorry, you will and now you'll carry that with you for the rest of your life. Across Amateur Radio, from Foundation and Standard through Advanced or Technician and General though Extra, there is this thing where people get together and ask each other how to get started. It's amazing to observe, grown adults every one of them, not daring to take the first step. It ranges from keying your microphone for the first time, through to making your first HF contact, through building an antenna, going portable, climbing a mountain, making contact with the International Space Station, doing a contest, building a radio or erecting a tower. It seems that collectively we've forgotten that this whole thing we do is about experimentation. We're so wrapped up in failure that more and more I see people wanting reassurance that what they're doing is right. Like they have to somehow be perfect the first time, be amazing, be accurate, eloquent, sturdy, brilliant or whatever is going on. I don't know how this started, but it's got to stop. If we extrapolate along this path we're going to end up as licensed automatons with no innovation, no spunk, no mistakes and no learning. Don't mistake me. You're not alone, there is prior learning to be had and community knowledge to be gleaned, but if you never fall flat on your face, how will you ever learn to get up? So, next time you're getting ready to do something, just start. Don't wait for validation, take failure in your stride and learn. Last week a friend and I went to scout a new location for a field day contest. We drove there, set up our station and proceeded to spend the day failing. We got RF into the radio, the computer was barely readable in the sun, I got sunburnt, we made two contacts and had a miserable time with short power leads, hard to use trees and to boot, it was hot. On the flip side, we trialled a new antenna design, learned that my clip on ferrite chokes don't and that we now had a list of things we'd learned and stuff we needed to bring when we came up for real. We didn't go up there to fail, we wanted to activate a rare WWFF Park, but instead we failed and learned other stuff. Think of this whole thing in a different way, frame it not as success or failure, but frame it as a way to learn something. Edison had this to say: "Negative results are just what I want. They're just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don't." Learning to experiment and being an experimenter and having a license that says you're an experimenter is also about learning to fail. Don't be scared. It happens to all of us. The better you fail, the better you succeed. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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What is the best antenna?
Foundations of Amateur Radio The single largest topic of conversation in Amateur Radio is about Antennas. The discussion often starts with one amateur telling another amateur about some or other amazing antenna, followed by a heated discussion about the merits or pitfalls of that same antenna and why they would never ever consider using it and why it's a waste of money, or some other rationale. Let's take for example the discussion of Dipole versus Vertical. There are those who will tell you that they'd never ever use a Dipole and similarly those who'd say the same about a vertical. Assertions of suitability aside, let's have a look at what we're talking about, first of all. In rough terms, a dipole is an antenna that is generally suspended between two sky-hooks, its fed from the centre and has pretty much an omni-directional radiation pattern. That is, signals arrive and depart from this antenna, pretty much evenly in all directions. Now, before you get all excited. It's not exactly the case, since it's not an isotropic point source, which you might recall is a theoretical antenna that we can prove not to be physically possible, but a dipole is the next best thing. A vertical is an antenna, which is often supported from a pole of some description, has some form of radial ground-plane at the base and while it's also omni-directional, there are parts of the signal that don't arrive nearly as well and other parts of the signal that fare better. Often a statement when comparing a dipole to a vertical will be something like this: "A vertical is better for DX and a dipole is better for local contacts." Now, let's just investigate that for a moment. If you've ever seen the radiation pattern for a vertical, you might have seen that there is a particular angle at which there is gain when compared to other angles. What this means is that signal arriving and departing from the antenna in essence favour that angle. Similarly, a dipole doesn't display this phenomenon nearly as sharply. There is some asymmetry between the sides and the ends of a dipole, but it's not particularly strong. Not that it's non-existent, just not pronounced. If you were to overlap the radiation pattern of a dipole and that of a vertical, you'd notice that apart from the single angle where the vertical favours radiation, the dipole pretty much has the same level of gain all round. In essence, this means that to all intent and purpose, apart from a single little angle, the dipole is pretty much the same as a vertical. I hear you say, "Yes, but..." Indeed. Think of a vertical as an antenna that favours a particular angle of incidence. It's more prone to hear signals from that angle than any other angle. Similarly, any transmitted signal is likely to favour that particular angle. As you know, the ionosphere is a moving feast. Signals arriving at one angle one moment may not be arriving at the same angle the next moment. If your vertical hears a signal one moment and not another, does that make for an effective antenna? Another aspect that separates a vertical from a dipole is the behaviour of vertical signals, so called NVIS, or Near Vertical Incident Signals. Things that are nearby. A vertical antenna all but ignores that aspect, where a dipole has no such behaviour. So, we're getting to the heart of it, imagine for a moment that the differences between a vertical and a dipole is their difference in filtering of signals. That is, a vertical filters signals from above, where the dipole doesn't. Similarly, a vertical filters all but the bits from a particular angle of incidence, where a dipole doesn't. If you've followed along, you might begin to realise that there is not a single "best" antenna. It's horses for courses. Your antenna choice is based on what you aim to achieve, not which antenna is better than any other antenna. So, the question: "Which antenna is the best?" should really be: "Which antenna is the best for this particular activity?" ...
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The humble dipole ... contraption.
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I'm going to talk about dipoles. You know the tried and true antenna, the go-to design for getting on air, the simple first antenna you ever make, the one you learn from, you know the one. It's the mainstay of every amateur, of any field-day, of all things Amateur Radio. It's a simple thing. Using metric, rather than imperial measurements, but the point stands, you use the speed of light in vacuum divided by the required operating frequency and you get the overall wave length for that frequency. In absolute terms, roughly 300 m/s divided by 50 MHz, gives you 6 meters. Surprise, that's the band name for 50 MHz. Now the dipole is a half-wave contraption, so, 6 meters divided by 2 gives you 3 meters for your total half-wave dipole. Each leg is half that, a quarter wave length, so you have 3 meters divided by 2 again and you end up with two bits of wire, a meter and a half long each. If you're following along, that's 300 divided by 50 divided by 2 divided by 2, or using the same numbers in a slightly different order, 300 divided by 2 divided by 2 divided by 50 MHz, or 75 divided by 50 MHz. Still one and a half meters per leg of your shiny new dipole. So, the basic formula for a metric dipole can be stated as 75 divided by the frequency in MHz per leg. If you're playing with feet and inches, 300 m/s becomes 984 ft/s, half that is 492, half that is 246 feet, so the imperial version is 246 divided by the frequency in MHz, gives you length in feet for each leg. So, you've cut your wires, tied them to some magical feed point contraption, plug it into your radio and you're good to go, right? Now, anyone who's actually done this knows that this is not what will actually happen. It's never that simple, and frankly if it were, we wouldn't be Amateurs, we'd be, unlicensed or something. So, what affects the actual length of this magical antenna? Lots and lots of things. Here are a few that come to mind: - The thickness of the wire you're using. - The thickness of the insulation on the wire. - A thing called the end-effect. - The height of the contraption above the ground. - The kind of ground. - The price of the copper you're using. Sorry that last one isn't right. I have been told, time and time again that there are only two kinds of wire, cheap wire and free wire. The preference is for the latter. So, price of the copper doesn't matter. Another thing that does matter is that some wire can stretch while in the air, making the antenna longer, so keep that in mind. Fine and well I hear you say. But how does this really matter? If you increase the thickness of the wire, the resonant frequency goes down, that is, the antenna is "too long". If you increase the thickness of the insulation, the resonant frequency goes down as well. The end-effect is like adding a capacitor to the end of the wire, making it "longer" as well. The height effect is different for each height. Generally the effect is that the antenna resonates at a lower frequency. Each type of ground has a different amount of effect. Water vs rock vs sand vs clay. I can hear you groan at this point. First comment to make is that all of these effects make the antenna resonate at a lower frequency. This means that the suggestion to cut your antenna longer than the calculated number doesn't make much sense. If you start with the basic calculation, 75 divided by the frequency in MHz, you'll end up with an antenna that's extremely likely to be too long. I can hear you screaming at me right about now. Hold your tar and feathers. I gave you the First comment. Here's a Second one. If you don't have space for a straight dipole, say, you need to go around a corner, or put a bend in the wire, all of what I just said goes out the window. If you put this above a metal roof, poof, also out the window. If you cannot terminate the wire to a rope without bending the end of the wire, poof. A Third comment. You cannot cut wire longer. You can only...
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Sizing your battery.
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I want to raise the topic of batteries. Specifically, sizing the battery. You can do as I did naively, look at the manual, see that the current consumption of your radio is 22 Amp, decide that this means that you need to get a 26 Ah battery to use your radio for 1 hour. Being the portable type, I got two, 52 Ah in total. Some time has passed since I made that purchase. I've learned that I can get a lot more out of my battery than 2 hours. I also learned that lugging 56 Ah around is not fun. Having learned this, what could I have done to improve? Well, first of all, the 22 Amp is for Transmit. According to the manual, on receive it's only using 1 Amp. If you're not transmitting all the time, then you're not drawing 22 Amp the whole time. The ratio between send and receive is the Duty Cycle, often expressed as a percentage of the time spent transmitting. Another thing to note is that 22 Amp is when you use full power for a particular mode and band combination. On my radio that's 100 Watts, HF FM, so only using 5 Watts will reduce the power consumption radically. Speaking of which, my radio has different maximum power levels for different bands, so when you're doing the maths, you need to take that into account. If that didn't add enough complexity, different modes use different amounts of power. AM, FM, RTTY and other digital modes use 100% duty cycle. CW uses 40% and SSB only 20%. So, rough back of napkin calculation, using 5 Watts SSB on HF for an hour, transmitting only half the time gives you 22 Amps times 5% power, times 20% SSB, times 50% of the time, a 10th of an Amp. Now, before you go out and buy a 1 Amp Hour battery and expect to use it on HF for 10 hours, there are some wrinkles. First of all, a 12 Volt, 26 Amp Hour battery doesn't actually give you an Amp per hour for 26 hours at 12 Volt. It's graded on a scale. At the beginning it gives you a higher voltage, at the end it gives you a lower voltage and after a certain point you've actually destroyed your battery, not to mention that the radio stopped operating when the voltage went below 11.7 Volts - somewhere around 30% capacity. To make things even more interesting, different batteries react differently depending on how fast you're drawing from them. Another issue is that temperature affects how much power you are able to draw. After all that, the manual for your radio is specifying theoretical numbers, not actual ones. I've never ever seen my radio draw 22 Amps, even when it was running flat out. On the flip side, I've also never seen my radio draw less than 4 Amp when transmitting, so the maths for this doesn't add up as expected. So, why was I giving you the maths if it doesn't work out? Because the Simple Simon Says solution doesn't work, but neither does some educated calculation. I hear you saying: "Well, that wasn't helpful." Actually it was. Now I can tell you something and you'll know why it will help you. Get yourself a power supply with a display that shows Amps, or get yourself an ammeter and stick it into the power supply circuit and take some measurements. Use a dummy load as the antenna, since SWR will also affect these numbers, as does the microphone gain, the squelch level and the volume level, as well as the display on the radio, the tuner and other things you have connected. Theory is great, practice in this case gets you a lot more reliable result. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Where did all the amateurs go?
Foundations of Amateur Radio There is a recurring topic in Amateur Radio circles, called "permissions", or "rights", or some other word indicating "entitlement". It's a conversation that has been happening since the dawn of radio experimentation and will continue until well after our Sun has burped it's final sun-spot. In Australia, there are three classes of License, in increasing level of responsibility they are Foundation, Standard and Advanced. There is an ongoing tension between these categories. Some higher level responsible licensees look down on the class with less responsibility, and the reverse is also true. This separation of class is an evolutionary one. As I said recently, the most recent overhaul, more than 10 years ago, back in 2005 saw the introduction of the Foundation Class and the consolidation of various classes into Standard and Advanced. There are current noises being made about how this needs to change. There are those who suggest that the Foundation Class needs to have access to more power, to more bands, to more modes and various other suggestions. There are recurring noises of making the Foundation Class require a renewal and other such things. Often there is some link made to the growth of the hobby. Make it simpler so we can get more people, make it bigger so we get more people, make it harder so we get better people, make it ... something else. I'm a computer geek. I like playing with data and I like to figure out how stuff works. Over a year ago I started the process of trying to understand how amateur radio ebbs and flows. For example, in rough terms, in the 10 years that the Foundation Class of license has existed, we've issued about 10,000 new licenses, so around 1,000 a year, give or take. In the same time, the total size of the amateur community has stayed pretty much the same. So, did we loose all those Foundation entrants, did the old ones die off, did something else happen? Is a licensee who starts and stays for a year more or less likely to upgrade? Is there a time window when the likelihood of dropping out is increased? Is there some underlying factor that causes people to leave the community? Is there a correlation between on-air activity and longevity in the hobby? What about age, gender, etc. We simply don't have the analysis at this time. I've been at the ACMA and the WIA to get access to historic data, frankly it's been a hard slog, the ACMA pointing at the WIA and the WIA claiming license restrictions and neither giving any indication that they're doing anything to resolve the issue. In case you're wondering, I'm talking about the public RADCOM, now called SPECTRA database, nothing secret or private about it. I recently hit on the idea of using contest logs from the various contests to determine actual on-air activity. So that will add several gigabytes of data to my investigation. And an interesting side note - based on incomplete data, the 2015 CQWW Phone Contest saw the submission of 60 logs from Australia, but around 750 actual stations from VK were heard on-air. I'm attempting to get the same raw information from the local contests. This will give me a "Last Heard on Air" date, which will give me an indication of the status of the callsign involved. So, regardless of where you stand on the notion of the amount of responsibility you have as a Licensed Amateur, it's clear to me that we need more information. I think this is important for the future of our hobby and I'm working on it. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Reviewing the introduction of the Foundation License.
Foundations of Amateur Radio The history of the evolution of amateur licensing is a nebulous affair, told and re-told, moulded, changed and interpreted by the story tellers along the way. There is an on-going debate about how the restructure of the licensing regime in Australia, in 2005, has affected our hobby. In 2005, after a 10 month review period, three classes of license were established, a new Foundation class, an a re-imagined Standard and Advanced class, using existing novice and novice limited licenses to create the Standard class and combining limited, intermediate and unrestricted licenses into the Advanced class. I've touched on this subject before, back in 2011, when I noted that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The ACMA published the review in May of 2004. It summarises the responses about the introduction of the Foundation licensing option. It opens with, "Over two-thirds of submissions were in favour of the introduction". It goes on to say that the most common reason for support was the need to make the amateur service more accessible and cited that the Foundation class then introduced in the UK was the appropriate standard. The majority of respondents suggested that the maximum transmitter output should be 100 Watts PEP and suggested 80m, 40m, 15m, 10m, 6m, 2m and 70cm as the appropriate bands. Also of interest is that 39% of respondents were in favour of a two-tier licensing structure, where 24% were in favour of a three-tier structure. The ACMA report also mentions that many respondents suggested that the foundation license should not be renewed without the licensee being re-examined. If you're familiar with the restrictions and obligations of the Foundation License then you'll recognise that some of these responses were agreed to and some rejected. I've not included the full report, it goes to 15 pages, but there are some other interesting things in the ACMA report. The ACMA notes that the main reason cited for requiring a Foundation licensee to be re-examined was to promote the license as a "stepping stone" to amateur radio operation. It notes that while there are provisions in the Act for such a re-examination, where there are reasonable grounds to believe that a qualified operator would be unable to achieve satisfactory results. The ACMA notes that none of the current amateur licensing options requires an amateur operator to be re-examined regularly. I wonder if we actually forced all amateurs to re-do their license, how many would actually pass? I know I would. There are other interesting things afoot. There is discussion today about allowing Foundation Licensees to use digital modes, but there is a move to require that it be added to the syllabus before that is permitted. Of course there is a parallel to make, none of the current licensees have any such formal training, why should a Foundation Licensee be "special" and require extra training. I've been asked what I think about privileges and the Foundation License. To be clear, I'm perfectly happy with my privileges. I have yet to experience all that Amateur Radio offers, and by turning my operating power to half the permitted level, 5 Watts, I'm learning specifically what works and what doesn't. I'm learning about propagation, about antennas, about operating techniques and about patience. I'm sure that this stands me in good stead wherever I go. One final comment, the ACMA report references a submission by a group called CQVK. I managed to track down the 112 page submission and have uploaded it to the F-troop website, the home of the weekly net in which New and Returning Hams can get together every week. Have a look at the ACMA report and the CQVK report at http://ftroop.vk6.net. As I've said before, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Let's not. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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How to manage your first pile-up.
Foundations of Amateur Radio There are skills that come from thinking and there are skills that come from doing. There is place for both in Amateur Radio. There is nothing in the world that is like the experience of working a pile-up, unless the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange counts, but I've not personally been there and it doesn't look as intimate as a radio shack. Working stations across the planet that are coming in thick and fast is an amazing thrill, not unlike getting onto a roller-coaster. The long slow journey to the top of the ride is calling CQ, the crest of the hill is the first response and the loop-de-loop is when they're all calling at the same time; rolling back down to earth at the end of the ride is the petering out of the calls, only to start again. If you've never experienced it, I'd strongly recommend that you find a way to put yourself in the position where you are exposed to this absolutely thrilling experience. So, what do you do when you're actually in this situation? Hopefully you're not going to be on your own the first time, but it does happen and it might be that the person you're with has never had the experience either, so here's some ideas on what to do. The first thing to remember, this is YOUR pile-up. You're the one running it, you're the one in control of it, it's your actions that make it work, or not. I've said in the past, it's all about rhythm. It's about expectation management. If the pile-up sees you floundering about, not being consistent, not giving out succinct information, they'll go elsewhere and the experience will be over before it begins. So. The noise is overwhelming, there are stations all over the place calling you. If you hear a callsign, or most of a callsign, then call that. Don't change your mind if someone else comes back instead. You've called CQ and let's say that you heard, K1R. You call back, K1R, 59. If the station operator on the other end is any good, the response might be HK1R, 59 also. Your response will be HK1R. CQ VK6FLAB. But lets say that you only heard K1. You call back, "the station with K1". The response is three stations at the same time, one SK1Q, one VK1AA, one JA7BG. You could get upset about the JA7 station calling, but remember, he too has lots of stations calling around him, he might not have properly heard either. You say "the station with K1, K1 only please". Two stations come back. SK1Q and VK1AA. You pick the one you hear best. SK1 again. You hear SK1Q. "SK1Q, 59." If your memory is great, you could also go on to say "VK1AA 59" and then call CQ. This is not something you'd do on your first or 10th pile-up, but it's something to work toward. The thing that took me a while to recognise is that there are idiots on the band who think that their callsign is the most important. My best advice is to ignore them. This is hard. They'll be very noisy. One trick, call while they're calling, rather than let their rhythm destroy yours. Remember, this is YOUR pile-up. Other things to note. I've spoken in the past about the so-called standard phonetic alphabet. As you might remember, there is no such thing. This will trip you up. Don't let it bother you. Other fun stuff that happens in a pile-up, especially if it's been going for a little while, is that you notice little comments. You might inject one of your own. "HK1R Big Signal, you're 59". Or if it's a friend, K9CT, you might say: "K9CT, Hi Craig, long time no see, 59." It's the little inserts in the middle of a pile-up, in the middle of the night that make you smile and give you that shot of adrenaline to make it last longer. I have to admit. For me, there is no stronger drug that riding a pile-up. Of course, this is not all there is to learn about pile-ups. It's to give you some idea of what's going on and what you might do to keep it alive when it happens to you. Feel free to get in touch with questions if you like. I'm Onno VK6FLAB This and other episodes are...
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Have a look or search online at the previous editions of this podcast.
Foundations of Amateur Radio This is episode 236 or so of my weekly contribution to this hobby. As you may have heard me say over the past few weeks, this is now available as a podcast which you can subscribe to. It's available at http://podcasts.itmaze.com.au and you can also search for my callsign, VK6FLAB on iTunes and find it there. I'm mentioning this because each podcast also contains a transcript, which you can use to search the content. I've been doing this podcast since May 2011 and in that time I've covered many topics. I get wonderful feedback from you about each segment, thank you, and I also get requests for content. Often new listeners ask me if I could talk about XYZ topic, and I'm finding more and more that in fact I have talked about such a topic. That's not to say that I won't revisit a topic if I have information to add. For example, I was in the process of researching baluns, got distracted by word-use and will revisit. As I'm doing the research I'm realising that the rabbit hole goes deep on that particular topic, so I'm not yet at a point where I can say much about it other than to think of a balun as a maths tool for feed-point impedance, that is to say, a 6 to 1 balun will transform a 300 Ohm feed-point to a 50 Ohm one, similarly a 9 to 1 will do the same for a 450 Ohm feed-point. All fine and dandy, but why would you need a 1 to 1 balun. Or what's the difference between a voltage balun and a current balun, not to mention the bandwidth, the different material types, and on it goes. So, I'm not yet at the point where I can distil the information to a three minute segment, but I will. I've also discussed cows and lightning in the past. If you remember, if a cow is facing the impact point of lightning, they can die from the current that flows along their body from their front legs to their rear legs. Which is why you want a single point earth in your station. I hope that you'll take the opportunity to have a look-see across the previous editions of this segment and find something to your liking. I'm Onno VK6FLAB. This and previous editions can be found online at http://podcasts.itmaze.com.au/ and are also available for download from iTunes and other podcast directories. Just search for my callsign.
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Contesting, something for everyone ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Previously I've discussed different aspects of contesting in relation to Amateur Radio. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, contesting is an activity where you test your station and skill against other amateurs. Unlike other contests where you're all in the same physical location, say a stadium, or an online playing field, amateur radio contesting is most commonly done from the comfort of your own shack. Of course, as is true for everything in life, there are exceptions to this. There are contests where you're not in your own environment, say on a field day, at a contest station, or some other place, but I'll ignore these for the moment. In most organised sports, and amateur radio is no exception, there are rules for participating. It should go without saying that you're expected to abide by the rules. Disqualification, bans, even life-time exclusions and revision of results can and have happened. Contests are planned by different people and groups and vary greatly across the globe. Amateur Radio is a global pursuit, and contesting is a global activity. It can start as simple as making a contact every day, through to staying awake for 48 hours and making as many contacts as possible across as many countries as possible as fast as possible, and everything in between. If you think about that for a moment, you'll soon realise that with so many different people organising contests, there is likely going to be one that tickles your fancy. There are several contests every weekend and often one every day. People participate in contests for different reasons, to try their new station, to win, to get another country on their DX list, to achieve a distance record, to test their skill, to learn how to hear callsigns in noisy environments, to spend time on-air, to laugh with friends and to contribute to the hobby of amateur radio. If you're new to our community, then contesting might be a scary proposition. You might not know what to do, or how to even start. You should know that your doubts were true for everyone you hear on air. We still haven't mastered the art of growing an amateur in utero, though I should confess that some act as if they are. So where do you start? The best way to do this is to set-up your station and to tune around the bands and to listen to what is going on. It will be confusing at first, but if you find a station that is making contacts that are different from normal ones, you know the one where you both exchange callsigns and a signal report, you'll begin to hear other parts of the contact. It's possible that the station is exchanging a serial number, or some other special token. You can also go online and find many different amateur contest calendars which each will give you a way to find out what global activity is currently taking place, so you can look up the contest online and read the rules. If all that's too hard, talk to your fellow amateur friends and go to their station and see what they do to participate in a contest. I'm Onno VK6FLAB This and other episodes of Foundations of Amateur Radio can be heard via podcast or download at podcasts.itmaze.com.au.
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SDR diversity and Ah-Ha!
Foundations of Amateur Radio In every new technology there is an ah-ha moment, the single one insight that defines for you personally what this technology is all about. No doubt this happened when Amateurs first used valves, when they started using transistors and so on. For me that moment happened during the week. You've heard me talk about the absurd noise floor, that is, the incredible amount of local radio noise that I experience at my shack. I've been working my station portable to get away from the racket. During the week I came across something that is likely to change that. You've no doubt heard about diversity reception. You can use two different antennas, do some fancy phase switching and make the noise go away. Now I should clarify, at least briefly what that looks like. Imagine throwing a stone into a lake, it makes waves. If you throw two stones into the lake at the same time, the waves get bigger, but if you were to time it just right, you could throw in one stone, then the next. If you timed it just so the first stone would make a wave top whilst the other stone made a wave trough, the two would cancel each other out. You can do the same with light, shine a torch onto a piece of cardboard with two slits cut into it. Behind the cardboard you'll see light and dark patches where the frequencies line up and cancel each other out. Light and radio waves are part of the same spectrum, so you can do the same with radio waves. You could use this technique to cancel out, or rather filter, local noise. So far I've not said anything particular worthy of ah-ha, but stick around. There are devices made that you can use to create the equivalent of two slits, by changing inductance and capacitance within a specific circuit, you can align two signals from two antennas and make them cancel each other out. The way that works best is if one of the antennas is really good at hearing noise and the other is responsible for hearing the required station. You can then mix the two signals, I don't have such a device, but I'm told there is an art to making this work, and out pops the station you care about. In software defined radio or SDR, you can do this exact same thing. Only you don't need a circuit to do it, you can show the results in real-time and you can create a user interface that makes it really easy to try different things. The example I saw is PowerSDR, an open source project that allows you to control many different radios. Picture a circle with a line that is attached to the centre of the circle and the end is attached to your mouse pointer. You can move the mouse anywhere in the circle and as you do this, you're controlling two parameters, the phasing angle and the gain. The gain is the length of the line, the angle is the direction in which the line is pointed. While you're moving your mouse about, the signals from both antennas are mixed together according to the position of the mouse at the time. The end result is a completely interactive direct feedback loop where you can see and hear the effect of the mouse location. You can move it around very simply, and immediately, continuously see the result. The outcome of all this is that you can bring your noise floor down by 30dB or more, and hear stations that were completely inaudible within the racket. I'd heard it being described, but seeing it in action was a show stopping moment for me and right there and then I knew that the landscape in radio has changed forever. I'm Onno VK6FLAB This and other episodes of Foundations of Amateur Radio can be heard via podcast or download at podcasts.itmaze.com.au.
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We should stop requiring electronics to be amateurs.
Foundations of Amateur Radio On a regular basis I receive emails from fellow amateurs and shortwave listeners who provide feedback and ideas about this weekly segment of Amateur Radio. It's a joy to read how they feel that my little contribution encourages them to continue in the hobby, or come back to the hobby, or to build something, or to do something, to participate, to experiment. Yesterday I received an email from an amateur who came up with an idea that's worth sharing. The idea was pretty simple. Encourage every new entrant into our hobby to build a crystal radio. I know that this might sound like a trivial thing, even silly, but for me it makes complete sense. Imagine that, building a receiver and understanding how it actually works. I know I've never actually done that and I suspect I'm not alone. So, here's a thing. Next time you're looking for a project to do, for a thing to make, for some soldering practice, try making a crystal radio. There's opportunity to make it work for CW and SSB - think of it as an upgrade - and from an electronics perspective, this can be as complex or simple as you like. Dovetail that with the notion of harmonics, how resonant circuits work and you're well on the way to making your first transceiver. So, the real takeaway from this idea, not only the idea you can build a crystal radio, but that there are electronics project to be found that enhance your understanding of how radio works and are easy to build. Now I should hasten to add, that I'm not advocating that we all become electronics experts. I know this isn't going to sit well with everyone, but let me say it again. I'm not advocating that we all become electronics experts. I know that the Standard and Advanced licenses in Australia require a fair bit of electronics, but I have to say that I think this is unhelpful. It's taken me a long time to get to this point, so before you sharpen your pitchfork and heat up the tar and feathers, hear me out. In Computing, which is a topic I know a lot about, having been intimate with it for nearly 45 years, there's a similar analogy. The notion that you need to know about memory, registers, about CPU clock cycles and a stack, accumulator and all manner of esoteric detail. I know all of this because 45 years ago, that defined what computing consists of. It stands me in good stead today, it makes it possible for me to conceptualise a super computer with little effort, but it's not required for someone coming into the field, learning to program and make the tools useful. It helps, but it's not required. We abstract things more and more in computing and we do the same in amateur radio. If you think back, a spark-gap transmitter, valve based radios, transistor based radios, integrated circuit based radios and now software defined radios went through the same progression. Today an amateur doesn't learn how to build a spark-gap transmitter, though if you did, it would help your understanding of high-voltage electronics, harmonics and all manner of flow on. It's not required. A similar thing is true for building a valve based radio and over time the same will be true for transistors, integrated circuits and software. You might think of this as a dumbing down, and to be fair, I thought the same thing for many years. In reality, it's not dumbing down at all, it's focusing on what's important, on what makes progress, on what grows a field. There will be always room for people who understand the difference between an NPN and a PNP transistor, but it's not required to be an amateur, even if today's amateur education system still requires it. So what I'm saying is that, you should build a circuit, build a radio, go on to build a transceiver. You should understand what goes on under the hood because it helps you understand the implications of things when you make changes. Just like a racing car driver has no understanding of the chemistry of the fuel that is put in his car, there should be no...
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Picking better language to talk about our hobby ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I started doing some research on Baluns. It was prompted by a message from a fellow amateur who asked about how they work and what they do and what the difference was between a 1:1, a 1:4 and a 1:9 balun. While doing that, I thought I'd look up what the definition was of a balun. It says right here on Google - so it must be true - that it's a type of electrical transformer used to connect an unbalanced circuit to a balanced one. I clicked on the link that said "Translations, word origin and more definitions", which showed me a history of the use of the word balun and I was hooked. The explanation of a balun will have to wait for another day. I started looking at the use of the word going back to the 1800's, based on Google's Ngram Viewer. Looks like it was used a bit between 1800 and 1910, but steadily declining in use, until it started picking up in popularity around 1930. Today the word balun is more popular than the phrase "radio amateur", but less popular than either "amateur radio" or "ham radio". Radio Amateur hit its peak in 1950 and Amateur Radio in 1990, when electronics also hit its peak. Ham radio hit its peak around 2000. All of these terms pale into insignificance when compared with either the word Software or Hardware. Hardware being about 200 times more popular than any of the radio terms, but software being 700 times more popular. So, what does this have to do with us, more specifically, what does this mean for you? Well, if you want this amazing hobby to relate to the people around you, there might be a benefit to use language that is increasing in popularity, while still related to us, it might pull us along with the tide. So, "Software Defined Radio" is on the rise, SDR likely means something else in 1985 when it hits peak popularity, but use is increasing. Interestingly, Icom makes more noise in literature than Yeasu, by about 9 times. The ARRL makes more noise than the RSGB and WIA put together and balanced is 8 times more popular than unbalanced, though I won't vouch for that relating only to amateur radio. Transistors hit their peak in 1967, capacitors did so a decade earlier, resistors even earlier in 1952. I think this means that we need to spend some time investigating the language we use to communicate about our hobby and use it wisely to increase awareness about the things we think are amazing. GPS is a term on the rise, antenna is pretty stable since 1965, emergency response is on the increase, communication is at an all-time-high, steadily increasing from 1900 on-wards. Radio is staying pretty stable, but hit its peak in 1950. Television is on the decline and the Internet is more popular than either. So, pick some words, look at the Google Ngram Viewer [https://books.google.com/ngrams] and learn some things about the words you might use to communicate about this wonderful hobby. Can you guess, what's more popular, a dipole, a vertical or a Yagi? I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Radios are not quite appliances ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today we have a world where radios are more and more like appliances. We can buy them at a store, ship them to our location, open the box, plug in the radio to an antenna and start operating. I said, "like" an appliance, because a transceiver is not like a toaster in all aspects and it's those little gaps between the toaster as an appliance and a transceiver as an appliance that I want to highlight. I was with a farmer recently who had a CB radio in his troopie, or if you're not familiar with that, a Toyota Land Cruiser, this one had 400.000km on the clock and was just getting run in. According to the farmer, the CB had never worked right. He joked that it was often easier to yell across the paddock than to use the radio. On a farm there are lots of things happening, during harvesting, heavy equipment is moving everywhere and communications are vital. I was with a friend and the first thing that we noticed about this CB is that it was a UHF CB, that is, it was using 70cm, or 470-odd MHz. The antenna however was a HF CB antenna, 27 MHz. As a radio amateur you know that this is never going to work well. In fact it's amazing that there was any contact using this particular CB at all. Another thing we noticed was that the connector between the radio and the antenna was loose, so it's entirely possible that the actual communication was happening around the connector on the back of the radio, rather than the antenna on the bull-bar. You might be listening to this and shaking your head. If you're uncharitable, you might even scoff at those silly CB'ers. I think that's both unhelpful and wrong. Precisely this is the difference between a toaster as an appliance and a transceiver as an appliance. It means that any radio training, any license at all, even a foundation call, is sufficient to learn enough to be able to diagnose such issues. You might think that this means that I think CB'ers are stupid. Far from it. I think this means that radios are not appliances and that there is ample opportunity for the skills we take for granted as amateurs to propagate through the community. If you're a CB'er yourself and you're not a radio amateur. Perhaps you might consider spending a weekend and getting your introduction to Amateur Radio. You are likely to learn lots of things you've never heard or understood, or more likely have been told incorrectly. If learning how to use your transceiver, be it CB, HF club or otherwise, is important to you, have a look at Amateur Radio. I think it's important. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Fieldstrength and Chickens
Foundations of Amateur Radio Yesterday during dinner I heard an interesting story. Apparently there was a farmer who had a chicken coop that he kept warm at night by using a 240 Volt light bulb hooked up to the chicken wire surrounding his chickens. The farmer's property was in the vicinity of a local AM broadcast transmitter. They only found him because the people in the shadow of the chicken coop had bad reception. I'm sitting at the dining table, listening to this tale and wondering, could it be true? My gut feeling was no, but surrounded by food and friends it was hard to put my finger on precisely where this doesn't add up. A little digging revealed that the transmitter in question was the local ABC 6WF transmitter at Hamersley. So, what do we know about this transmitter? First of all, it's a 50 kW AM transmitter. I must confess, I have operated this station. Imagine that, 50 kW AM, with an introductory Foundation License. Anyway, back to the 6WF transmitter. It's located on a block of land, roughly 500 meters wide, 1000 meters long. Thanks to the ACMA we have a map that shows a contour line where the field strength of this transmitter is 1 Volt per meter. That means that there is 1 Volt difference between two points a meter apart. This contour varies in distance from the antenna from 2.1 km to 1.8 km. So in a sort-of-circle around this transmitter there is a circle of points at which you can step 1 m further away and measure a field strength decrease of 1 Volt. We also know that electric fields decrease by the inverse square of the distance, or said in another way, if you double the distance, you decrease the field strength by 4, if you increase distance by 3, you decrease strength by 9. Of course, the opposite is also true. If you halve the distance, from 2 km to 1 km, you increase the field strength to 4 V/m. If you have it again to 500 m, the field strength becomes 16 V/m. To power a 240 V lamp, we'd need to get within 100 meters or so of the transmitter. Of course, the block is 500 m wide, the closest you can get without going onto the property is about 250 m, where the field strength is about 64 V/m. So, unless the farmer had a chicken coop on the transmission site itself, this is unlikely to have happened. Before you ask, how can an f-call operate a 50 kW AM transmitter, on 720 kHz, easy, get invited to talk about Amateur Radio with Gillian O'Shaughnessy on ABC breakfast radio. Did you know, her grand-dad was an amateur? Anyway, if you know the farmer in question, or if you're sure it's happened, I'd love to hear about it. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Change one thing at a time ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Whenever I go out to play radio, which is whenever I actually want to operate, I try new things. For example I've experimented with different clocks, to keep track of what time I made a contact, I've experimented with different ways of logging, with different locations, different antennas, with different bands, times of day, methods of calling CQ, methods of making a contact with a DX station, different methods of looking at propagation, different distances from interference. As I said, every time I try something else different. One thing I do, that might not seem obvious. I try to only change one thing. The reason I do that, is so I have a better understanding on what the change actually did. Of course this isn't entirely possible, you often cannot park in exactly the same spot, at the same time with the same propagation, but if you go out often enough, things start coming together. So, for a clock, I use a $20 digital watch that has two time-zones. I set it to show local and UTC at the same time. For logging I use a spiral notepad. I write the date on a new page, the location, the radio, the antenna, the maidenhead locator and anything new I'm trialling. When I listen up and down the band, I'll write down each callsign I hear, their frequency and a signal report. If I manage to make contact, which as a QRP station can be a rewarding challenge, I'll add the time, their signal report and some other information they share, like their name and location. I'll also add two exclamation marks in the margin, so I know that I need to log this contact in my logging software. I tried using my phone, but logging software is not that good, a computer runs out of battery before you make your first contact, or just goes to sleep when you get a signal report and nothing beats looking at your wrist for seeing what time it is right now. Antenna wise, I'm still fooling around with my mono-band verticals, it's been over a year now and while frustrating, I'm still learning about what they do and don't do. I ask most amateurs I come across about their opinion and have been given lots of great and some dud information along the way. All in all, most of my activity is about learning. Every now and then I manage a DX contact and that's very rewarding. Meanwhile, the hunt for Morse continues. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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How to get started in a contest
Foundations of Amateur Radio There are times when you'll find yourself being encouraged to participate in a contest. You might receive an email, a Facebook encouragement, or even hear an item on the local news about a contest. Where do you start if that's what you're interested in? Well, first things first. You need to find out when this contest is exactly. The reason this is important is because you might go though all the preparation, only to find yourself sitting at a family BBQ listening to your favourite family member sharing the story about the dog and the lake, rather than being in the contest. Once you've determined that you are in fact able to participate in the contest, put it in your diary. This seems obvious, but I can guarantee you that there will come a day when you're happily sitting in the sun having lunch when that sinking feeling appears and you realise that the contest you were going to play in started 8 hours ago. Now that you've got the basics out of the way, what's next? Find the contest website, most contests have one, in fact I can't think of one that doesn't, and look at what the aims and objectives of the contest are. Download a copy of the rules and see if there are things that exclude you from operating. The contest might be on bands you're not allowed on, or modes you're not licensed for, so make sure that you're actually allowed to participate. Then read the rules of the contest for understanding. Most contests define who is allowed to contact whom at what time, on what frequency and how often. The rules will outline how points are calculated and how the log needs to be submitted. Other things you'll find are the deadline for log submission, the exclusions, power requirements, bonus points for low power operation, things like operating more than one radio, or having more than one operator. Terms you'll come across are SO2R, or Single Operator Two Radios. Or Multi-Multi which means Multiple Operators with Multiple Radios, or Multi-Single, meaning Multiple Operators, One Radio and all manner of special classes as defined by the contest manager. Previously I've talked about getting logging software together, setting up your station and testing it, but those things all need to be covered off. Make sure your computer doesn't need a Windows Update in the middle of the contest, get enough sleep before the festivities and plan for some recovery time after the contest. This of course doesn't cover all of what you need, but it's a really good start. Get on air and make some noise. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Tools in my shack
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I was looking around my shack and noticed that I have lots of different amateur radio tools that go beyond the simple bits and pieces that I started with, namely a radio, battery, power supply, coax and antenna. While I have no illusion that my gear is complete, or even representative of all of the stuff that you might need or come across, I think that it's worth while to mention a few bits and pieces that you may not have considered. I think the first thing I got that wasn't part of the basic kit, was a dummy load. It's only a little one, rated at 50 Watts or so, but seeing that I'm only using 5, that's more than enough. I use it to check things like VOX sensitivity, that is, I want to set-up a way to talk into my radio without having to push a button - for when I'm doing a contest, and I don't actually want to transmit any signal while testing, so I plug in the dummy load and test with that. I also use it to plug into the end of a piece of coax that I'm testing. I can tell you, it's helped me find some dodgy coax over the years. I have a range of adaptors, from PL259, SO239, N-type, SMA, BNC, male-to-male, male-to-female, female-to-female, all different permutations. They're all in one box and I have that with me whenever I go portable, it's saved my bacon more times than I can remember. I have a multi-meter, the most often used part of it is the continuity beep. You can set it to beep if there is a short, which is great for testing power leads, coax shorts and the like. I splurged and purchased an antenna analyser. It's helping me understand the errors of my ways while building antennas, though I confess that on more than one occasion it added to the confusion. I have a coax cutter, a pair of high quality pliers, though one of my so called friends left it in the rain one day, so they're less quality than they were, an Anderson Powerpole crimper, a gas soldering iron - so you can solder in the field, a third-hand, since holding something while soldering is an excellent way to get a scar to impress your friends. On my workbench I have a lighted magnifying glass, since the older I get the harder it is to focus on small things. I have a bag of clip-on torroids which I use in places where operating surprises me with bonus RF interference. I also have stuff like cable-ties, electrical tape, self-amalgamating tape and a fair bit of rope. You'll notice that I don't have an SWR meter, I figured that the one in my radio and the antenna analyser combined were enough. I'm sure there are other things that I take for granted, but the items I've outlined are in regular use. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Wet string and 10 Watts
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I had the pleasure of talking to a group of freshly minted Amateurs. It's a semi-regular occurrence where I visit a local club that offers training to obtain an Amateur License. I should mention that you'll find clubs like this all over the place and there are often opportunities to do remote examinations if you're too far from an assessor. This however isn't about becoming an Amateur, that's something that I'll leave entirely up to you, even if I think that being an Amateur is a wonderful thing. One of the things I like about this hobby is that it's different things to different people. There is a huge variety of aspects to this pursuit of Amateur Radio and as I've said in the past, it's really a thousand hobbies rolled into one. In Australia there are three so-called classes of license, think of it as a moped licence, a car license and a truck license. If you want to drive a truck you need that one, but if you're on a moped, there's no need to spend your efforts on learning to double-de-clutch a Ranger gearbox - something I can assure you from personal experience is hard to master, but fun to get right. The three licenses in Australia, Foundation, Standard and Advanced each have different privileges, access to different but overlapping aspects of the hobby. One privilege within the class of license that I hold, the Foundation or F-call, is that I'm limited to using 10 Watts. I've spoken about this restriction many times, in fact, the very first time I shared my opinion about this hobby in this forum was exactly about those pesky 10 Watts and what is possible with them. Back to the freshly minted Amateurs. It occurred to me that while I was explaining the amazing width and breadth of our hobby, that the 10 Watts, while completely arbitrary, and often lambasted for being so, is actually a blessing in disguise. When you get on air, or if you already have the privilege to do so, you'll learn or already know that making contacts with a wet piece of string is pretty hard, nigh on impossible with 10 Watts. One solution is to add more power. A better, more elegant solution, is to get a better antenna. So, the blessing in disguise that 10 Watts represents is really all about forcing a Foundation Licensee to spend considerable effort in their antenna system. Something which we might all agree on is a good thing, if only to clear the air of alligators, big mouth, no ears. I'll take the risk of repeating myself. It's not how much power, but what you do with it that matters. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Propagation and reality
Foundations of Amateur Radio A recurring topic of conversation is propagation. There is learned discussion about sun-spots, A and K indices, forecasts, ionospheric probing, not to mention half-baked guess work from less scientific perspectives. It's been my experience that all these tools are wonderful, but none of them beat turning on your radio and having a listen, or better still putting out a call. So when do you listen and where do you listen? The trivial response would be everywhere, all the time, but none of us has enough time for that. In general, 20m, 14 MHz works most of the time. At night, frequencies lower than 20m, that is 40m, 7 MHz and 80m 3.5 MHz work better. During the day, higher frequencies, 15m, 21 MHz and 10m, 28 MHz work better. Of course this is not a hard and fast rule. As I said previously, there is no such thing as a perfect antenna, in fact we can prove that it cannot actually exist. Similarly, there is no such thing as perfect propagation. We tend to think of propagation in terms of layers in the ionosphere, the D, E and F layers. We might think of them as specific, distinct things, but the reality is that they're more like clouds. Clouds are not uniform in cover, sometimes fluffy, other times dense thunderclouds and an infinite variety in between. Coverage is variable and forecasting is a real challenge. And that's for something we can see. The ionosphere is no different. It's not uniform, it's not predictable and forecasting is hard. Back to the clouds for a moment; you might have a forecast for rain, but it's perfectly dry where you are. Similarly, you might have a forecast of poor propagation, but it's perfectly fine where you are. So, best tip is to use the forecasts you have access to, but stick your head out of the window to see if it's raining right now. If that was too obscure, turn on your radio and make some noise, even if the sunspot count is rubbish and the Ionospheric Prediction Service tells you that nothing is going to work. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Getting started with portable operation
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I'm operating portable, in fact I'm operating portable every day. Though I'd have to confess, some days more than others. I have to do this by necessity. There is lots of RF noise at home, so I'm forced to physically move away from the interference and set up elsewhere. You can do this as simply or as complex as you like. I've done it with a bag that contained my radio, a battery and a wire antenna that I strung between two trees. I've also gone portable with my car, camping gear, a trailer full of radio gear, a wind up mast and a rotatable dipole with a generator to provide power. And everything in between. My point is that for every circumstance there is a different set of tools that will solve your problem. Several amateurs I've spoken to are quite unsure about this portable adventure and are not really geared up for such shenanigans even if they're interested to get out and about. So what is involved with going portable? The essence of any station is the antenna. If you know where you're going to operate and why, you can figure out what kind and how much of an antenna you need to bring. Likely a mast and rotator are not part of the deal, but I have set up a yagi on mast in a park for a contest. If you don't know where you're going to be, you need to come up with a solution that is more flexible. Either a self supporting vertical with something like a squid pole or a wire antenna that you can throw into a tree. The next challenge is power. Are you going to operate for a little while or are you going to set up for 48 hours to participate in a contest. Are you going to be using low power, 5 watts, or are you in a position where you can give an amplifier a workout? Batteries, generators, your car or a solar panel, all of these can power your radio in different situations. Are you planning to make a few contacts, or are you expecting a huge pileup to get your blood pumping? Logging for either requires a different solution. You should always, always consider the weather when you're operating portable. Sun, wind, rain, storm, hot and cold all have different implications for you personally and the wear and tear of your equipment. So prepare yourself. Just like when you started your shack, you had to figure out what goes where and how will I use it? Portable operation is no different. A tip for new players, less is more. You have to carry all this stuff, so expect to make compromises. You won't be able to take everything in your shack, unless you already built it in the back of your vehicle, in which case I'd like an invite to come and visit. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Antenna Calculators
Foundations of Amateur Radio Recently I was asked about finding the best antenna calculator. It's a tool that helps you determine what the length of an antenna should be for a particular frequency. Picture a dipole antenna, two wires, end to end, strung out horizontally, joined in the middle by a feed point. A dipole is most effective if its total length is half of the wavelength of the frequency it's intended for. To calculate what that is, you divide the speed of light by the frequency. So, for argument sake, the wavelength for 28.5 MHz is roughly 10 m, which makes sense, since 28.5 MHz is in the 10 m band. If you use your favourite search engine to find a dipole calculator, you'll find many different ones. If you try a few, you'll find that the answers that each calculator gives is slightly different. For a half-wave dipole on 28.5 MHz, you'll find that there is a half meter variation among the calculated answers. If you do this for a dipole for 3.5 MHz, you'll find the variation is just over 4 m between the shortest calculated dipole and the longest one. That's a 5% variation across a calculated response. That's strange, since the calculation should be the same across all different calculators. So what's going on? Let's start with the wave length. If you use the speed of light as 300.000 km per second, then a frequency of 28.5 MHz is 10.526 m, but if you use the actual speed of light, there's a 7mm difference. Right, simple, so there should be two types of answers, those that use 300.000 km per second and those that use the actual speed. Unfortunately, no. You could use "majority rules" and pick the calculated answer that turns up most often, but science isn't a democracy. It's either correct or it ain't and you have no way of knowing which is which. What you're actually witnessing when you see all these answers with the overall 5% spread is different approximations of the answer. Calculator is a word that implies precision and accuracy, but what's actually happening is that each calculator uses their own fudge factor to get closer to the starting point. It's all in an attempt to get to an actual answer quicker, since hoisting an antenna, measuring, lowering it, trimming it, hoisting it again and so-on, is not fun with a 10m antenna, let alone an 80m antenna. Some of the fudge is related to how high the antenna is off the ground, the thickness of the wire used, if the wire has insulation on it and how thick that insulation is, what the soil type is and what angle it's actually hanging at and how far it's from other things. What this really means is that you need to experiment. When you buy wire, buy long, cut in little bits, measure lots and try it. A calculator will get you in the ball-park, but you already know the nominal length for a dipole as it is, it's right there, in the band name. So, just because you've found a fancy calculator online, doesn't make it right for your circumstance. One tip, plot all the antenna length results from the various calculators and see what the curve looks like, you'll see a wonderful distribution curve that just begs to be used. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Use it or Lose it ... make a contact today!
Foundations of Amateur Radio In your travels around the sun it's likely you've heard the phrase: "Use it or lose it." Within the ranks of our hobby, that refers to making noise on air and using the bands we've been allocated. It's easy to sit in your shack - in what ever form that might take - turn on your radio and scan up and down the bands to see what's going on. If something interesting catches your fancy, you might even plug your microphone or key in, and actually call the other station. Unfortunately, that's not using the bands, that's sitting on the side and listening. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it's no way to ensure that the bands and privileges we enjoy today are going to be here tomorrow. Over the past few years I've come across several ideas to change that. I've seen blogs and posts from individuals who attempt to make a contact every day, in what ever form they prefer. Some don't distinguish between local or DX contacts, portable or QRP, whatever takes their fancy. In New Zealand there's the ZL2AL Memorial Activity Marathon. You get recognition for making 4 or more contacts on a specific number of days during the year. Some amateurs are working on a single contact per day, others are attempting a QRP QSO every day. Imagine if all the amateurs in the world made one contact every week. In Australia alone that would generate 2000 extra contacts every day. You can limit your activity to making contacts when it suits, or during a contest, or on the way to work on the local repeater, or you can spread your wings and make contacts more often than that. I know for a while - until my antenna circumstances changed - I was making at least one contact a day. I kept that up for nearly a year. I'm still getting the QSL cards coming in the mail. So, don't wait for permission to get on-air. Don't wait for "just the right conditions", turn on your radio, plug in your microphone and make a contact. Why not do it right now? I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Propagation predictions and operating your radio
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today propagation is what it is, yesterday it was different and tomorrow it will be different again. It's one of the fundamental aspects of amateur radio. We talk about propagation on air, like we do the weather. Rain, sun, snow or storm, there's always something. Of course most of those weather events have no impact on radio. A rain drop isn't going to make a great deal of difference to a HF signal, other than potentially making the operator wet, or creating a short-circuit in an unexpected way. Propagation on the other hand has little or no effect in day-to-day life, other than your GPS, mobile phone or other electronic device. In radio however, propagation makes the difference between only hearing your neighbours and speaking to another station on the other side of the globe. In the past I've mentioned that if you skip a stone across a lake, you get a good idea about how radio waves bounce off the ionosphere and in doing so, make it possible to hear and be heard beyond the line of sight of your antenna. A stone is a fixed object and water has a pretty uniform density, so you get mostly predictable results. The ionosphere is not uniform and radio waves are not fixed, so the result is anything but predictable. That said, a great number of people are working on providing propagation prediction tools in an attempt to provide us with somewhat more of a reliable outcome. Once you step into this area, you'll come across the A and K indices, the Solar Flux and Geomagnetic and Solar Flare numbers. You'll find websites like solarham.com, bandconditions.com, spaceweather.tv and many others. Sometimes they'll even agree with each other - which is interesting in itself, since the source of actual data is pretty limited. We have the Ionospheric Prediction Service or IPS in Australia, in the US there's the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. All this is to attempt to quantify what the sun is doing and how this affects the ionosphere and in turn our experience as radio operators. If you know anything about predicting the weather, that is, what is the temperature going to be today and is it going to rain, you'll understand that predicting solar activity and its impact on us is a less than perfect experience. In 1959 we managed to snap the first images of the far side of the Moon, it took until 2011 for us to do the same with the sun. Many of our predictions are really observations and imperfect ones at that, coming from the two STEREO spacecraft, one orbiting the sun ahead of the earth, the other behind the earth, combined they manage to cover the back of the sun. In the end, the predictions on carrying an umbrella or not are like predicting whether to operate or not. It's a prediction. Nothing beats turning on your radio and having a go. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Every Antenna is a Compromise!
Foundations of Amateur Radio Recently I read a comment a fellow amateur made about an antenna. He said: "Of course, that antenna is a compromise..." Let me say that again: "That antenna is a compromise ..." It was the funniest thing I'd seen all week and the person making the statement wasn't even trying to be funny. Unless you're looking at the Sun from a distance, or checking out the propagation associated with the Big Bang, All Antennas are a compromise. We can prove that an isotropic antenna, one that is a theoretical point source of radio waves, cannot actually exist, so that basically means that you cannot have it all, ever. Once you've got your head around the notion that no such thing as a perfect antenna actually exists, or can exist, it makes sense that amateurs around the world spend so much time discussing and trialling antennas. As you get involved in Amateur Radio, you'll soon realise that the number of variables to construct an antenna is large. The more you learn, the more variables you unearth. Initially, you'll learn that the length of the radiator will determine the resonant frequency, then you'll learn that the thickness affects this, then whether or not there is insulation, what material it's made from, how high it's off the ground, what soil type there is, what's nearby, how it's fed, where it's fed, if it's stranded or solid, not to mention shape, orientation, frequency and other variables you'll unearth along the discovery process. The take-away should be that playing with antennas, while not immediately satisfying, is a fundamental part of this hobby. It's the final link in the chain and the single largest influence on the effectiveness of our station. In all this, I've just looked at the physics of the antenna, but other variables also come into play. The amount of actual space you have available, the depth of your wallet, the availability of materials, the feedback from your neighbours or your local council, your family and their acceptance of your crazy pursuit. Patience and propagation also take a large chunk of the pie. Is there the ultimate antenna? Yup. It's an isotropic antenna and it cannot exist. Everything else is up for grabs. So what ever works for you is good. Compare your efforts with your fellow amateurs and ask questions. Duplicate other efforts, trial stuff, make noise, get on air and see what happens. A popular metaphor, that an infinite number of monkeys, banging on an infinite number of typewriters, left to their own devices, sooner or later will reproduce the works of William Shakespeare. It's like that with amateur radio. We just evolved to play with antennas, rather than typewriters. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Phonetic Alphabets
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today we have a standard for our on-air phonetic alphabet - technically it's called a spelling alphabet, but I digress. As you should be aware if you're a licensed Amateur, we use the so-called standard phonetic alphabet. It's used and defined by several organisations, including the International Telecommunications Union, the International Civil Aviation Organisation and NATO. It should come as no surprise that each of those organisations defines their own alphabet. It just so happens that today each of these definitions is the same, but that hasn't always been the case. In the United Kingdom, Alpha went through Apples, Ack, Ace, Able an Affirm. In the United States, Alpha has been Able, Affirmative, Afirm, Able, Alfa. In Amateur Radio we've heard America, Amsterdam and even Australia. All that for just the letter that we spell as Alpha. If that's not enough, try on Adams, Adam, Anatole, Anton, Ancona, Antonio, Anna, Aarne, Adana, Aveiro, Amor, Ana and Avala. No wonder we have a few different spellings that we hear on air when we're busy spelling our callsign to the other station. Where does that leave you? Well, the ACMA specifies in their amateur operating procedures the International Phonetic Alphabet and it is recommended for use by amateur station licensees. Note that it's recommended, not mandated. My best advice is to learn and love the standard phonetic alphabet. It's been almost standard since 1956. That's not to say you won't hear me call Victor King Six Florida London America Boston on occasion, when I'm trying to talk to some station that hasn't a clue that I have a legitimate callsign with a four letter suffix and they need to be sure that I know that it's real. The recommended procedure when dealing with a Pirate is to go silent. You won't believe how many stations went quiet whilst I was working my latest contest. Those four letters do cause some grief, but I understand, it was only introduced recently, as close as 2005, so it's understandable that not everyone has heard of an Australian Foundation call, let alone get their head around the standard phonetic alphabet. I'm Onno Vice Kilogramme, Soxisix, Frank Loves Amsterdam Beer
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What to say in a contest...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I want to talk about things to say and do in a contest. Before I begin, I must point out that there are many views on this and depending on your aim for the contest, what I'm going to talk about will be different. First of all, a contest is an Amateur Radio activity that starts and stops at a particular time. Often this time is expressed as UTC, or Universal Time. Since there are several official time-zones and more unofficial time-zones here in VK alone, you'll need to check your own location to determine what the actual local time is, but for my money, I have a watch that is set to UTC and during a contest I put it on my wrist. Apart from the rules for each contest, often described in mind-numbing detail with particular exceptions for different issues, often grown over time, there is a basic aim to get on air, make contact with other stations and exchange a salient piece of information. This information of course varies with the contest, but the most common exchange is a serial number. What that means is that your first contact is 001, your second 002 and so-on. I mention the double zero, since they are often expected and leaving them out is a source of confusion for the other station. Especially if their first language isn't English. So, you give out a signal report, followed by the serial number which often will be something like 59001, 59002 and so on. The very first thing people say about a contest is that signal reports are bogus. The reason they're bogus, always 5/9, is because it reduces the time it takes to say them, and more importantly, to log them. Most contesting software doesn't require you to enter the signal report and you need to spend extra effort to change them, often much more than just typing in the correct digits. So, despite your misgivings, if you're in a contest and you're talking to another contester and you're playing to win, then 5/9 is the signal report. If you make many contacts you'll learn that there is a rhythm to making a contest contact. The more rhythmic you can make it, the more likely you'll succeed in getting through the contact quicker. And that really is the point, less words, more contacts, saving your voice, less misunderstanding, better contest result. This is not the conduct you'd do on a rainy Tuesday afternoon when you're chewing the fat, or on air also known as rag-chewing, this is specifically during a contest or pile-up. In the local contests it's fine to say "Hi", use the words "My number to you is", but in the rest of the world these are just not helping. During a contest there is no discussion about your radio, your antenna, your dog or what you'd like to buy when you win LOTTO, it's about the quickest, most accurate contact you can make. Let's imagine I'm searching and pouncing; that means I'm moving around the band looking for contacts. Let's imagine that K1DG is running; which means they're on a single frequency calling CQ Contest. The bare bones of a contest contact between K1DG and VK6FLAB during an SSB contest contact would be like this: K1DG contest VK6FLAB VK6FLAB 59667 QSL 59667 59001 QSL 59001 K1DG contest Now in that exchange I've said a grand total of 18 words. K1DG has said 23. The whole thing is 41 words, no more, no less. Of course, callsign length increases or decreases that count. Some things to observe. I never say their callsign. There is an assumption that if you're calling someone who is running you'll spend a few moments listening for their callsign, either before or after the contact, no need to tell them what it is, they already know it and it's 4 words extra, plus the pause between the two callsigns, it breaks the rhythm of the contact. K1DG when he's running a pile-up is not going to call CQ, but not saying his callsign at all is worse than not saying CQ. There are people who are tuning up and down the band like I was, who want to know who the station is because they may or may not want to work...
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1000 hobbies under one roof
Foundations of Amateur Radio The hobby we call Amateur Radio is hard to explain to anyone outside. I was recently asked about what it was about the experience that had me hooked. I talked about Summits on the Air, SOTA, Islands on the Air, IOTA, World Wide Flora and Fauna, WWFF and satellite communications. DX hunting and competitions, but I never quite managed to capture what it all really means. Since then I came across a really wonderful explanation about what it is that we have here. Said simply, Amateur Radio is a thousand hobbies in one place, each with their own community, their own skills, their own gear, pursuits and club-songs. For some it's the pursuit of making a contact using low power and Morse-code, for the next it's building the key to make that happen, the next person wants to build the radio, the amplifier, the twin-feed, the mast, go camping, etc. etc. The characterisation of 1000 hobbies in one place under the umbrella also helps in other ways. It highlights that we're all different, with experiences that are both shared and unique. All coming together under the single, almost trivial moniker of: "I am a radio amateur." The take-away from this is of course that you can do inside our hobby what interests you. Find people with the same outlook, or people who are smarter than you, or people who push you, or make you laugh, or make fun of you. All these things are within our hobby. Your job is simple. Find your own place among us. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Names in Amateur Radio
Foundations of Amateur Radio The origins of names of things in Amateur Radio has a long and internet riddled history, with hear-say and false memories added. The humble BNC connector was patented in 1951. BNC doesn't stand for Baby N-Connector, Bayonet N-connector, British Naval Connector, Berry Nice Connector, Berkeley Neucleonics Corporation or any such name. Apparently, it's named after it's inventors Paul Neill and Carl Concelman, the Bayonet Neill-Concelman connector. They went on to invent the Threaded Neill-Concelman connector, the TNC. A sub-miniature version of these connectors came in three types, A, B and C, called SMA, SMB and SMC. Also, the N-type connector was invented by the very same Paul Neill at Bell Labs, and the C connector came from Carl. The Yagi antenna, was invented in 1926 by Shintaro Uda in collaboration with Hidetsugu Yagi, both of Tohoku Imperial University in Japan. It's actually called an Yagi-Uda antenna. Yagi described the antenna in English in 1928 and his name became associated with the antenna. The PL-259 and SO-239 connectors are not so clear-cut. The PL for plug and SO for socket seems to be agreed on. There are several explanations on the numbers, but the most persistent one seems to be that it was a US army part number. They're also referred to as UHF connectors and if you know that they were invented in the 1930s, you'll understand that UHF frequencies started at 30MHz and "above", which in practical terms meant 300MHz. An interesting thing to note is that a standard banana plug mates properly with an SO239, so you can just plug your long-wire straight into the socket. Of course we have the Volt, the Ohm, the Ampere and the Farad, named after Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, German physicist Georg Simon Ohm, French physicist and mathematician André-Marie Ampère and English physicist Michael Faraday. Everything is named after something. Sometimes we even remember what that was and where it came from. What things have you learned about names in Amateur Radio? I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Do your thing and find friends to play with
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today in Amateur Radio is no different from yesterday, last year, last decade or longer. The hobby today is filled with people who are here to have fun, learn stuff and experiment. This hasn't changed since our hobby came into being. You can argue that the hobby has seen a great many changes. We have seen spark-gap transmitters, valves, transistors, miniaturisation, chips and now software defined radios. The experimental nature of our pursuit has not changed. We still spend time looking for cool stuff to do and people to do it with. And that's the single point I'd like to make. Finding people "to do it with". If you're a new amateur you might look to a club or your fellow classmates to combine your efforts. This can be a great way to forge life-long friendships and it's a sure fire way to find exposure to other ideas and activities. There might come a time when you find yourself at a loss what to do next, or who to do it with. You might lament that the group you're hanging out with are not doing fun stuff anymore, or that activities never quite happen or any number of observations that make it less fun to be part of amateur radio. I've now been here for a little while and I've noticed that some of my fellow amateurs have fallen by the way-side. Of course family and changing interests will account for some of that, but often it's a lack of something to do that makes people fade away. There is nothing stopping you from organising your own event. You can plan a camp-out, or an antenna testing day, or a DX activity, a contest, an activation, some software hacking, or hardware building, soldering training, learning how to log, how to do a QSO, or any number of other things. If you tell the community about it, you're likely to be surprised by some other amateur who was just thinking to do the same thing. So, don't wait for someone else to do your fun activity. If you focus on doing things that you enjoy, you might find a few like-minded friends who will participate. I'm keen to hear your ideas and activities, so drop me a line. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Radio Amateur - the local lunatic
Foundations of Amateur Radio There are things that surprise me about this amazing hobby of Amateur Radio every day. One thing that is not a surprise is that some part of the general public thinks that I'm crazy, a lunatic, or worse, someone or something to be feared. Picture this. My car is parked in a car-park, next to some bush-land. Behind the car is a 12m fibre-glass squid-pole with a delta-loop hanging off it. The car-doors are open, it's a warm day, and I'm sitting in the driver's seat with a good friend coaching from the passenger side. I'm calling CQ and trying to figure out if this antenna works. Cue, Isobelle, she's the local ranger for the park we're in. She pulls up in her truck and comes out with "So, what's going on here then?" We explain that we're radio amateurs and that we're testing an antenna. She tells us that someone has seen us, phoned it into the ranger and she's been tasked to come out and check. We'd been set-up for all of 15 minutes. Two days later, I'm in my local park, 2 minutes walk from my home, trying to see if the delta-loop will reduce some of the RF noise I get at home. I've brought along a fishing rod, some guy wires, walked around the park, found a suitable tree, unpacked my stuff, cast a sinker across the tree, hoisted up the delta-loop, secured it to a nearby fence and strapped the feed point to the tree with some webbing. I'm sitting on the ground with my radio, having a fine chat with a fellow amateur when two likely lads walk up in ranger uniforms. I tell my fellow amateur that I've got to go, as I have two visitors. We finish up and I ask, "Hello, how can I help you?" One ranger tells me that they have had a report from a neighbour who told them that there was this lunatic putting ropes in trees and doing weird stuff. He goes on to tell me that he's quite disappointed to see the actuality of a radio amateur setting up an antenna. Seems our ranger was in the emergency services in a prior life and has some experience with HF wire antennae. They have a look around to make sure that it's not unsafe and that I've not damaged any trees and finish off with wishing me a great day. I learned two things from this. Expect to be noticed and think about how the public might interact with what you're doing. Also, be mindful of public safety, ensure that your setup isn't a health hazard to someone. So, those are my lunatic amateur stories, what stories do you have to tell? Drop me a line and let me know. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Delta Loop for Portable Operation
Foundations of Amateur Radio Today I learned something new. A good antenna makes a big difference and you can hear it. Of late, I've been using the antennas on the boot of my car and have for some time all but abandoned my 12m spider-beam squid pole. As you might recall, the very first antenna I ever built was a quasi-random length vertical with 16 radials. Each of the 17 wires is about 12.5 meters long, so there is a lot of wire, wound onto a garden hose reel for transport, lots of effort in setting up, lining up and stuff to do before I can actually get on air. In a HF quiet area it works pretty well but it's too big for most back yards; it takes up a circle of 25m diameter and needs either guy wires or a car at the base. I went back to the drawing board. Using my trusty SG237 antenna coupler, I found a design online for a delta-loop. It's 120 foot or just over 36.5 meters of wire, setup in a triangle with the SGC coupler at the middle of the base. Yes, I know, the take-off angle isn't optimal, but oh my, what a difference in signal strength. Of course, from a setting up perspective, strap the squid pole to a vertical structure of some sort, roll out the wire, stick it to the top of the pole, erect the pole, click the antenna coupler in place and you're good to go. Call it 5 minutes. Perhaps an analogy that will help is that the difference between the HF antenna in my car and the delta-loop suspended from the 12m pole is like cleaning your glasses, you can see perfectly well through them, but when you clean them, you can see more than you thought was there. For my portable contest and QRP operation I'm going to have a look-see at a set of delta-loops, still suspended from my squid-pole, but this time cut to resonant length with no tuner at the base at all - and I can feed it at the bottom corner where it makes for a better take-off angle. Before I forget, a take-off angle is like the angle at which you skip a stone across a lake. If you do it too steep, you get bloop, rather than a skipping stone; the better the angle, the more skips. The same is true for HF radio signals. Make the angle too high and you get bloop, make it low and you can hear stuff on the other side of the planet. The experimentation with antennas continues, and I'm beginning to learn, it will for the rest of my life. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Hunting for the perfect SWR.
Foundations of Amateur Radio There is a persistent perception among a small part of the amateur community that you need to build, buy or use antennas with a perfect 1:1 SWR to get the best results. Sometimes a contest erupts with who can get the lowest SWR. Without getting technical, since that could take hours and you have better things to do. A 50 Ohm dummy load has a perfect SWR of 1:1 and you should already know that a proper dummy load doesn't radiate, so while it has a perfect SWR it's not a perfect antenna. If your SWR meter reads 1.5:1, you're losing 3% of your signal, at 2:1 it's 11%, so just because the SWR is 2, doesn't mean you've got a dud antenna. Now I should point out that this can be a particularly dense topic if you get into the finer detail and if you do a search for "Understanding SWR by Example", you'll come across a delightful and very detailed document written by Darrin K5DVW and published in QST magazine that goes into pictures, graphs and explanations and also discusses ladder line. So, you can now stop hunting for the perfect 1:1 SWR and learn what your SWR meter is telling you. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Tuning a dipole, bring your friends...
Foundations of Amateur Radio This week I spent several hours in a park with a mast, guy wires, some coax, an antenna analyser, copper wire, a balun, cable ties and a pair of pliers, not to mention a tape measure, a calculator and several experienced amateurs. We set out to create a linked dipole antenna for a portable activation that we're working on. If you're unfamiliar with the concept of a linked dipole, it's simple. Imagine a dipole for 10m. It's about 5m long with a connection to the feed in the middle. At each end of the dipole is a connector of some sort - in our case, just some bare wire while we were building the contraption - and then some method of joining a piece of wire, in such a way that you can either opt to have the bits electrically connected, or just physically. If you repeat this, then you end up with a normal dipole that's made up of segments that you can either connect or not. This means that when a segment is connected, the dipole becomes resonant on a lower frequency, since the electrical length increases, and if you disconnect it, it becomes resonant on a higher frequency. The purpose of this contraption is to have a single antenna that you can simply lift up in the middle and use. To change bands, you lower the thing, then you either disconnect or connect a segment, and then you raise it again. The internet is full of calculators that will give you the length of a dipole for a given frequency. You'll find some that account for the thickness of the wire, the thickness of any insulation and the angle at which the dipole is hanging from the centre and the height above ground. Unfortunately my experience thus far is that none of these actually give you the real length, just the theoretical one. The actual length could be longer or shorter, so this means that for any given calculator, you need to cut the wire long and then trim as required. While you're doing this, the length of the antenna changes, the angle at which your antenna hangs changes and the height of the antenna above ground also changes. If that's not enough, the soil on which your antenna is being built will change the characteristics of the antenna as well. Most of this wasn't a surprise to me and as soon as you start playing with this, you'll observe the very same phenomenon. What took me by surprise is that the method of tuning, cut, measure, cut, measure, cut, measure, cut, that I'd been using with much frustration is still the very same method if you're an experienced amateur. The only difference that I could discern in the shared activity was that it came with jokes, laughter, arguments and assistance, which when you're doing something as frustrating as tuning a wire dipole, is a great benefit. So, thank you to my friends for starting this caper. And if you're off on a dipole building party, bring some friends. It won't make it any easier, but it will be more rewarding. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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7Ps of Amateur Radio - be prepared
Foundations of Amateur Radio Amateur Radio is as much about having fun as it is about learning. Sometimes they go hand-in-hand, sometimes not so much. The 7Ps of Amateur Radio are as valid today as they were 100 years ago, Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Amateur Radio Planning can take many forms, but the basics include creating a permanent checklist. The notion of creating one every time means that you forget every time what you learned last time, so if you create a permanent one and then revise it from time-to-time, you'll be able to incorporate lessons learned, like "bring the radio face-plate control cable", and "bring the quarter inch jack adaptor", so you don't end up repeating the same lesson over and over. Test your gear at home. Not just turn it on, but set up the mast, check that you have guy wires and anchors. Check that you have enough coax to connect your antenna to your radio, spare batteries, etc. One trick I learned recently is to have a red and green label or elastic band. Attach the appropriate colour to your batteries, so you can instantly see if the battery you're lifting up is charged or not. Look at maps, bring instructions to get to places, look at Google Earth and remember that power lines might not show up on a satellite map, but they're sure going to annoy you when you get on air. Street view is handy to check out power-lines. Try different antennas. Verticals are easy to setup, but sometimes depending on your location they can be noisy. Dipoles need two supports, but an inverted V only needs one. Wire antennas can be simple to make and cheap to get bits for and repair, but they're not like the yagi you left at home. A really helpful comment I read from Julie VK3FOWL and Joe VK3YSP is that you shouldn't be embarrassed by your hobby. Be seen, be visible, talk to people. You'll be amazed at the amount of interest you get, people are curious, they'll sticky-beak whenever they can. Amateur Radio is not the only thing you can do when you're out and about. Go for walks, go hiking, fishing or drink beer around the campfire, whatever floats your boat. Just like you can see stars at night in the bush, you can hear radio when you're away from interference. You'll hear stuff you never heard before and likely you'll get hooked into either astronomy or radio in the bush, or both. There is much more to discuss about planning, but the basic premise is that it pays to think through the activity, the process of packing, driving, setting up, operating, living on-site, packing up and driving back. Think about food, safety, emergencies, fuel, and remember, Amateur Radio is not worth dying over, this is a hobby. Laugh, have fun, be merry. Yes, in case you're wondering, the 7Ps don't come from Amateur Radio, but just like the US Marine Corps Antenna Handbook, search for "r3403c", we can learn lots from them about both antennas and planning. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Cabrillo and ADIF file formats
Foundations of Amateur Radio Cabrillo and ADIF are likely two terms you've heard if you've done anything with logging or contesting. So what are they, how do they work and why does it matter? Let's start with Cabrillo. It's a file format used for submitting an electronic log to a contest manager. It was developed by Trey N5KO in 1999 for the ARRL. It's up to version 3.0, but the intent is that the older v2 files are still readable by todays programmes. The aim of the Cabrillo format is to provide some meta information, like the contest name, the person who did the contest, what club they're part of, where they live, what category, etc. After that, each contact is shown as a single line with a fixed format that shows the frequency, the mode, time-stamp, exchange and other pertinent details. Significantly it does not contain any point information, because the intent is that the contest manager imports each log and their software calculates the actual score, dealing with the rules as defined by the contest, duplicates, multipliers etc. The format for all of this is precisely defined and all the fields for a contact are required. The only other comment about Cabrillo is that it was developed to allow both humans and computers to read it easily. At first glance, the ADIF format is all but the same. It deals with amateur radio stuff, contacts and the like. But at second glance, ADIF, or Amateur Data Interchange Format is really not the same. For starters, if you open up an ADIF file in a text editor you'll immediately notice that it's all but unreadable by a human. If you know what you're looking at you have a good chance to glean meaning, but at the first look it will appear as gobble-de-gook. The ADIF file format is intended to be a way of exchanging any amateur information, such as awards multipliers, packet spot data, contest rules and it is intended to be expandable to include and incorporate any new kind of information as our hobby evolves. There are countless ADIF fields, things like the reporting a short wave listener report, or an encryption key, or the grid square of the station, or the propagation mode, or any number of other values. So, if you think of Cabrillo as the bare-bones of a contest contact log and ADIF as all the information you ever wanted to log and hadn't thought of logging, you'll have the right idea. I should point out that both file formats are text. That means that if you open them up in a text editor you can look at them. Word of warning for the unwary, you can really break an ADIF file by editing it in a text editor. If you want to exchange amateur radio information with another amateur, use ADIF. If you want to submit a contest log, use Cabrillo. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Amateur Radio FAQ's
Foundations of Amateur Radio There are questions that happen, over and over again. In computing they're called FAQ's, or Frequently Asked Questions. Here are some that happen in Amateur Radio. What radio should I buy? It depends on your budget. Where are you going to be using this radio, at home, in the car, in a park or on a mountain? Will you have power where you are, will you be using HF, or will you be using VHF, UHF and above? Ask other amateurs around you, use their radios and have a play. What is the best antenna? The one that works. You can buy, build or borrow. Try out several ones, trade off size, space, cost, functionality and simplicity. It can be as simple as a single piece of wire, or as complex as a remote controlled and adjustable multi-band antenna. When should I be trying to make a contact, or what is the best frequency to be on? The one that works. If you're tuning up and down the band and you hear nothing, and you've checked that the squelch isn't closed and your antenna is connected, change bands and have a look elsewhere. You might think that there are specific times for specific bands, but that just isn't true. There are too many variables to make a hard and fast rule. You'll get pleasant surprises at sun-rise and sun-set. Look up the grey-line. How much power do I need? Just enough to make the contact. Sometimes that's 5 Watts or less, sometimes 100 Watts isn't enough. Conditions vary greatly and every time you turn on your radio is a new adventure. Can I use my radio in the car legally? Yes. Your hand microphone is permitted in a vehicle, it's not classed as a mobile phone and you cannot be booked for using it, BUT, you can still be charged for dangerous driving, so don't be an idiot on the road. If in doubt, don't. Life is not worth a DX entity, even if you've been trying for 38 years. Why should I care about contesting, it's not my style. It exposes you to working on-air in adverse situations. There is lots of activity, lots of interference and making contacts can be hard if you've never done it. If you learn how to operate in a contest, then when the time comes and an emergency of some-sort occurs, you'll be well practised in the art of making a contact when the going is tough. Think of a contest as a perfect excuse to learn how to use your radio. Why do I keep hearing Sugar and Washington, instead of Sierra and Whisky? Because the Americans think that the NATO alphabet doesn't apply to them. You will find that some stations just cannot hear "Sierra", but respond immediately to "Sugar" which may tempt you to use that by default. Opinion is divided on the best practice, but the ACMA specifies that you use the NATO alphabet and they are the people who grant you your license. Should I always use phonetics in my callsign? Yes. There are some who think that it's a waste of air-time on VHF and UHF, but it depends entirely on the conditions. If you're operating with a station that you know well, then you might be able to go with the non-phonetic version, but if in doubt, use phonetics. On an international conversation, it's good practice to use phonetics, since not everyone around you will be listening to a 5 and 9 signal. What's the best wire to use for an antenna? There are only two types of wire, cheap wire and free wire. When in doubt, go with the free wire. Should I upgrade my license? That depends entirely on why you're in Amateur Radio. If you're here to have a yarn and your current license suits you, then leave well enough alone. If you want a structured environment to learn more stuff, do an upgrade. If you want more privileges, more bands, more modes, more power, do an upgrade. If you're happy as you are, read, talk and learn. One day you might want to upgrade. Don't ever upgrade because someone tells you that you must. This is your hobby. If you stay within your license conditions, then carry on and have fun. If you have other questions, or if you didn't like...
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What radio should I purchase?
Foundations of Amateur Radio A regular question that I hear from amateurs, both new and experienced ones, is "What radio should I purchase?". It's a simple question that doesn't have a simple answer. The obvious variables, budget, size, frequency and modes are one side of the coin, and when you start looking, you'll learn that there is a lot of information on the subject. You'll learn that you can get amateur radios from $15 to $20,000 and everything in between. To be clear, I'm just talking about the radio, not the power supply, the amplifier, microphone, computer, antenna, interfaces, Morse key and the like. Unless you won LOTTO yesterday, and not even then, you should probably not buy a $20,000 radio first up, but if you do, make sure you give me a call and I'll help you test it. The question that often happens is, should I buy a Yaesu or Icom, which is like asking, should I buy a Mac or PC, or a Holden or a Ford. As you know, there are many different options and the same is true for your radio. The reality is that unless you have specialised measuring equipment, most modern radios are pretty similar. That's not to say that they are the same, far from it, it's just that you are unlikely to come across a situation where you'd actually notice, since the variables that make up our hobby are so vast, propagation, antennas, local environment and the like, that any slight differences in radio performance are likely to be completely masked by other factors. Again, I'm not saying that there are no differences. If you have a shack where you have 10 radios side-by-side, all connected to the same antenna, you'll be able to notice differences, sometimes they'll even be significant, but overall, in day-to-day operation, other variables beyond the simple metric of "performance" are more important. The budget you have is a big factor when you get your radio, and don't spend more than 50% of your total budget on the radio, since you'll need a whole lot of other stuff that simply isn't in the box. Antennas, power supplies, coax, headphones, microphones, etc. are just the basics. When you've narrowed it down to a couple of radios, go and visit some shacks and see them in operation. Try to work like you would work on one of those radios. If you're a contester, try a contest on a friend's radio, if you like working portable, go out with your friend and see how the radio performs. There's nothing wrong with picking the radio that your friend has, since it will help you learn more about your own gear. Since my first purchase I've learned lots about radios. I have no regrets that my first radio was a Yeasu 857d, but I picked it because it suited me. I can tell you that I don't think that my next radio will be the same. There is lots that I like, and some things I don't. Even the most experienced ham asks their friends for their opinion. My current one is to recommend an open source software defined radio, but I've not actually used one yet and I already know I dislike the software that it ships with, so there's that. I'm Onno VK6FLAB.
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Different soil types ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Recently I had the opportunity to operate mobile in 30 different locations within a 24 hour period. I'd done some preparatory work, in the way of looking closely at maps and plotting my expected route to know where I was and how far it was to the next location. One of the things I noticed while operating was that my signal reports varied greatly. I also noticed that the local noise floor was quite variable, power lines don't realy show up on a map and I can tell you that they are not your friend. One aspect of operation that took me a little by surprise, though it probably shouldn't have, was that different soil types made a big difference. I know that when I'm playing with antenna modeling software you have the opportunity to specify the soil type, but that doesn't really translate into anything that you can personally experience. The way I mainly noticed the effect is that for any given frequency, my ATU was unable to tune for some soil types, wet was good, rock wasn't. This was the first time that I'd actually experienced that in such a way that I managed to notice what was going on, rather than a theoretical experiment, this was a practical exercise and well worth the effort of moving around. Next time you go out portable, or mobile, have a look at what is happening around you, one of the actual variables is the ground beneath your antenna. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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Welcome
This podcast started life in 2011 when I was asked to record a story I shared during the production of the weekly amateur radio news in Western Australia. I'd been a licensed radio amateur, or ham, for a few months and found myself surrounded by people who perceived the basic Australian foundation amateur licence wasn't worth anything. What use is an F-call? is my response to that sentiment. It's produced weekly. In 2015 after long deliberation it was renamed to Foundations of Amateur Radio so people outside Australia might also enjoy the experience. Although most of the items stand alone, I'd recommend that you start at the beginning in 2011 and listen in sequence. Enjoy. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
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